The Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) and how it will impact companies when things get back to relatively normal are things I have been thinking a good deal about.
I recently posed the question: ‘Should Human Resources (HR) departments be expected to deal with the racial disparities within their companies brought to light by the Black Lives Matter movement?’ And if so, is there a more holistic way to approach this and still have HR maintain their principal priorities? Given that they could be put in a position of conflict to make a company look good, regardless of personal opinions and knowledge.
At the time of writing, 45% had said yes to my question posed on LinkedIn. Yes, that HR should be the ones to deal with it, while 55% disagreed (The poll is on LinkedIn; click the link to chime in.
One of the responses received said: “…any organisation that looks to HR to ‘diversify’ them in any way will fail hard.” I could not agree more.
My favourite so far is: “The issues caused by the many need to be solved by the many.” For some reason, people are always looking for someone to fix something despite being perfectly capable of being part of the solution. Discrimination will not go away by giving it to someone as a job. Even an expert requires the cooperation of all.
Black lives do matter
It is not the role or responsibility of HR to deal with conversations about race. But, I am sure that when those conversations do start, a lot of pent-up frustrations will be aired. If not, then congratulations – your company has a monopoly on how to best talk about racism in the workplace. Or, the environment has not been created for staff to express issues openly. Something I believe is more common than people care to admit and, which is detrimental to any organisation that strives for unity.
Although not easy, there are simples way to begin tackling some of the issues.
How we respond to people opening up to us plays a huge part in bridging divides. One thing to remember, however, is never to utter the words “I understand.” You don’t. Empathy is, of course, a desirable quality. But to claim ‘understanding’ is to go too far and easily leads to erroneous assumptions and actions on behalf of others, which can lead to unnecessary complications and failures, which might have been avoided if only the persons themselves had been consulted.
As a black woman, I have experienced discrimination in many forms. Still, I would never claim to understand another’s experience. As individuals, we experience things differently, no matter how similar situations may seem. So please don’t say you ‘understand’; this is one of the few cases where sympathy triumphs over empathy.
Given that there isn’t a modus operandi for fixing discrimination, being charged with having to figure out the best way when you have little experience could prove challenging.
The simple solution is to ask. If someone comes to you and expresses a problem that you are ill-equipped to deal with, ask the person how they would like to see it handled. If assumptions are made, without asking what it is they want or need, it is not only injudicious but, can be incredibly demeaning to the person discriminated against should the punishment not fit the crime.
Everyone at a company needs to agree discrimination is wrong and then decide what to do about it. The Discrimination Act on racism should be applied too. If someone can be fired for making offensive comments to the differently-abled or those of the LGBTQ community, they should be fired for making racist comments.
This fortuitously brings me to address a concern raised in the poll that, the Black Lives Matter will: “…push some other just as important topics to one side, including disability.” I am not sure I can agree with that, given that the other important topics such as disability also affect black people.
Discrimination is not an either-or situation. Especially as these “concerns” over other protected characteristics being sidelined are never brought up when talking about issues other than race. I cannot recall a single other time when the phrase “inclusion should mean inclusion for all” was used to undermine a global movement!
I want to stress the fact that race itself is not, and should never be, considered or regarded as a disability and – contrary to former widespread belief – there is nothing ‘wrong’ with people who do not happen to be born white. There are, however, similarities in how people with physical and mental disabilities and people of colour have been historically and are treated even now. People with disabilities and black people have received outright hostility and patronisation, even from the well-meaning – all of which caused and continues to cause distress.
Making a change
Ignorance may be bliss, but we can no longer deny the fact that there is a problem; people joining the Black Lives Matter marches are risking their lives by gathering in a global pandemic to protest and raise awareness. And now that we have it, what can we do to make a change? Listening and asking questions is a great start, but they are reactive things to a problem that we all need to be proactive in doing something about.
Before the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement which has been going on for many years (since 2013 to be exact), there have been people diligently working to bring awareness to issues that people of the BAME community should not be facing in the 21st century.
If your company is serious about making a change, you need first to acknowledge that your company will need outside counsel. It is unfair to put so much pressure on one group of people, so even if you have an inhouse Diversity and Inclusion team, there may still be a need to bring in an industry professional.
“It’s the responsibility of business leaders (including the HR leader) to tackle anti-racism and wider EDI activities. Ideally, this should be done in partnership with a range of internal voices and external expert partners” -Tony McCaffery, Founder of Diversity Scotland.
In short, working with a freelance consultant has the value of providing a vital outside perspective, a fair appraisal, of the inner practices of the organisation.
All things to all people
I have huge respect for HR departments and truly believe that they are the backbone of any business. But there is a limit to what their responsibilities should be, especially if we are putting people in situations where they are also responsible for enhancing the reputation of a company.
HR departments cannot be all things to all people, which is why we need to support them to do their jobs by not expecting them to attempt things that others are in a better, specially trained position to accomplish.
I posed my question to my LinkedIn community to gauge where people stand on HR’s involvement in BLM. Although not surprised by how close the results of the poll were, I have to say that I am very concerned about how much responsibility we are putting on a group of people to fix something that we as individuals need to be working on in our everyday lives.
Henrietta Shirazu is a Diversity and Inclusion Image Consultant with over five years of experience helping women of colour succeed with style by building confidence and strength with personal branding. Get in touch if your organisation needs help figuring out a way to navigate uncomfortable situations to achieve results authentically.