The Fear Black Employees Carry

The Fear Black Employees Carry
Added 2 months ago
Summary: Five meaningful actions leaders must take in the face of racist violence.
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The voices of racism and white supremacy are louder than ever, and Black employees — and customers, suppliers, and investors — are living with a primal, existential fear. It’s not hard to understand why: Those who attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6 included middle-class, middle-aged accountants, doctors, lawyers, shop owners, and even CEOs, from blue states and red states. People have learned that racists are all around them — in their extended families, their neighborhoods, and even among their colleagues. CEOs and other leaders must recognize this problem and address it competently, because ignoring it is not only morally wrong, it’s also bad for business. The author recommends five actions: 1) Commit to listening; 2) Take meaningful action; 3) Reckon with the past, and change the future; 4) Dig deeply to understand your company’s discriminatory practices; and 5) Back up your ideals with real money.

While many company leaders may not see it, their Black employees are living in existential fear. The January 6 attack on the Capitol, the ongoing police shootings of Black people, the senseless pepper-spraying and handcuff of a Black Army officer (Caron Nazario) at a gas station, and even some of the reactions to the guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin who murdered George Floyd, showed us that the voices of racism and white supremacy are louder than ever.

As a Black woman, I am seeing more and more emboldened racism even among people whom I thought I knew, and at familiar places, like my local grocer and at my fitness center. I have a pit in my stomach recalling a recent workout during which two strapping burly white men stared directly at me as they spoke to each other. I was the only one in their line of sight. Each time I looked away and then looked back, they were still staring coldly at me.

For the first two minutes I thought nothing of it. But as this went on for about 12 minutes, I found my heart beating faster, I got nervous, and terrifying thoughts began to run through my head: Do they know what level in the garage I’m parked on? Do they know what car I drive? Will they be waiting for me when I leave? While I had no other evidence of threat, the current environment escalated my sense of fear.

Both professional and blue-collar employees and leaders have told me that they worry for their own safety and those of loved ones, even in mundane activities such as shopping and walking to work. They have seen the veil of civility slip from some people they’ve known for a long time, who now treat them more contemptuously. And they worry that coworkers, subordinates, bosses and company leaders may turn out to be racist, or inadvertently say something hurtful because they are blithely unaware of the pain of racism.

At the most primal level, Black employees fear this: Will the people whom I think I know so well turn on me if racism and violence erupt again like it did on January 6?

It’s not hard to understand why such fear is endemic. Consider that the Capitol’s attackers included many who are not affiliated with militias or white supremacy groups and who don’t fit the stereotype of a racist. They included middle-class, middle-aged accountants, doctors, lawyers, shop owners, and even CEOs, from blue states and red states, according to a study by the Chicago Project. People have learned that racists are all around them — in their extended families, their neighborhoods and even among their work colleagues.

Black workers are telling me this existential fear is affecting them at work. They are exhausted from spending energy managing hurt, pain and fear, instead of being able to focus on their job duties. They’re not performing at their best. Many have become apathetic. And in an increasingly diverse world, chances are that your Black customers, suppliers, and investors are grappling with these same fears, and suffering the same crippling effects on mind space and productivity.

CEOs and other leaders must recognize this problem and address it competently, because ignoring it is not only morally wrong, it’s also bad for business.

So what should company leaders do? First, don’t expect that a change in Washington will calm things down. A peaceful but narrowly won presidential transfer of power won’t stop the divisions. It won’t end the anger from the extreme fringe of the losing side. It won’t extinguish the threats of political violence or the need to talk about it, as Tim Ryan, chair of PwC U.S., recently pointed out.

Second, don’t expect a bold company statement of zero tolerance for racism to do the trick. If it’s not backed up with a plan and with action, your employees will see right through it. They will rise up and demand meaningful action, which is why some companies are working with people like me.

I advise these leaders to take five actions:

Commit to listening.

I’ve heard Black employees talk about the pain and disappointment they feel because their managers have not said anything about any subject that’s connected to race — good or bad. They heard nothing even after basketball star Kobe Bryant, beloved the world over, and eight others died early last year in a helicopter crash. Black workers went months in 2020 without having any conversations at work about racism and violence or hearing any messages from their leaders. They assume their leaders and coworkers just don’t care or aren’t concerned.

Even leaders who are caring and concerned don’t know how to begin a conversation about race. “I don’t want to open Pandora’s box,” one leader told me. After expressing disgust over the public episodes of racism, another wondered if the workplace reassurances I urged him to make would be anything but futile: “Why would I do this?” Another white CEO, who hosted a town hall after the death of George Floyd, told the group that she finally understood what it’s like to be a Black worker after hearing about it from her white colleagues. One Black employee countered: “We’ve been telling you our story all this time, so what does my voice mean to you?”

I’ve hosted more than 100 virtual listening sessions, roundtables, focus groups, and one-on-one interviews with leaders, as well as separate ones with employees. The most enlightened CEOs are hosting their own sessions with employees, customers, shareholders, and other stakeholders, then taking fast action on the insights they gained.

The feedback has been a revelation to these executives. A white executive shared a story of what happened after he sent a heartfelt message following the death of George Floyd. The executive also invited employees to contact him with any concerns. One Black employee thanked him profusely for the message and confided that he walks at night with his family because he is afraid to walk alone, and nighttime is the only time he can have company.

Another leader told me she went home and wept after hearing painful stories from her employees. “This process has been enlightening for me, because I lacked the courage and conviction to speak up before now,” she said. “By not speaking up, I have become a perpetrator by allowing the problem to persist, especially because I am in a senior leadership position.”

Top managers must not only be willing to get feedback from all employees, they also must give people the tools and training they need to continue these conversations.

Take meaningful action.

Listening will help develop empathy. That will pave the way for meaningful actions and standards that help employees, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders feel valued and safe.

As an example of what empathy can do, in the fall of 2020 American Express launched a $1 billion initiative to promote racial and gender equity. AmEx pledged to double its business with minority-owned U.S. suppliers to $750 million, donate $50 million to nonprofits that serve people of color, and crack down on racist behavior among its 64,000 employees. In January 2021 at Bloomberg’s The Year Ahead virtual conference, AmEx CEO Stephen Squeri told a reporter that his company developed the new program after months of introspection and listening to his employees and key stakeholder groups. As the grandson of Italian immigrants who were persecuted themselves, he said these conversations hit home.

New policies must address the concerns of Black employees, with the goal of helping them feel safer and, in the long run, protecting the company’s brand and business. Everyone will benefit. Be clear about the types of behaviors and activities that are considered appropriate for all employees at all levels so that future concerns and prohibited activities are addressed in a fair, consistent, and timely manner. For example, make it the norm for employees to speak up without fear of undue reprisal. Develop policies on the types of conversations and activities you will allow in the workplace. Share a well-defined process and policies for employees to confidentially report suspicious activities and get support if they are feeling unsafe.

Reckon with the past, and change the future.

Just as the U.S. has grappled with slavery’s role in building the country’s economic foundations, many leaders — including those at some high-profile companies — are discovering that their organizations at one time exploited others or profited from racism and inequality. Today’s leaders will need to reckon with their racist histories, policies, and actions of the past. But all leaders must also realize they can no longer be bystanders to acts of hate and mistrust that proliferate today. “Employees look for their company to stake out a position, and customers look at what are the values that you stand for as a company,” AmEx CEO Squeri said at the Bloomberg conference.

For example, many leading companies including AT&T, JPMorgan Chase, and United Parcel Services suspended campaign contributions to political leaders who tried to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. And rather than turn a blind eye to racists who may be among their hosts, Airbnb undertook the deliberate and time-consuming step of vetting via their Facebook and Twitter presences. It removed those who espoused racism, according to The Information.

Dig deeply to understand your company’s discriminatory practices.

Leaders should ask themselves: Whose voice is missing? How diverse is my workforce? Do my policies make it difficult for people of color to reach the upper management ranks? Am I giving enough business to minority-owned stakeholders? Do my products perpetuate racial stereotypes or reinforce a white standard of beauty or appropriateness? Am I overlooking people of color in my product lineup and my marketing efforts?

These were questions I advised one investment firm to ask itself. Its CEO has lamented that he wanted to hire more Hispanic advisers, then admitted he’s not investing in any Hispanic companies.

Several companies have taken strong steps to address racist overtones in what they sell, even if it means giving up potentially profitable markets. IBM announced last June that it is getting out of the facial recognition business. Unilever, L’Oreal, and Johnson & Johnson are renaming or discontinuing skin care brands that whiten skin, a $6.5 billion market. Quaker Oats has abandoned Aunt Jemima, and other food brands have discontinued mascots that smack of racist images.

Back up your ideals with real money.

Well-known companies and their leaders are redressing racial inequities by committing financial support. Comcast donated $75 million in cash and $25 million in media to a three-year project to promote equality. Apple launched a $100 million Racial Equity and Justice Initiative, focusing on education, criminal justice reform and economic inequality. Netflix co-CEO Reed Hastings and his wife, Patti Quillin, personally donated $120 million to the United Negro College Fund and to Morehouse College and Spelman College, two historically black colleges.

Smaller companies without the immense resources of Apple or Comcast can take meaningful action by leveraging their expertise and partnering with other groups. One company’s government affairs team partnered with others in their industry to identify and address inequitable laws and policies in the cities and states where they operate and even on a national level.

Now is the time for leaders to give all employees at all levels the platform to publicly and privately voice their existential fears — and then allay them. Develop policies, procedures, and practices that address racism within your company, and commit resources and time to fighting racism outside of it. And don’t assume that racism’s embers will die out just because a new president is not stoking the fire.

The newly unleashed racists among us will continue to be emboldened. All good companies that want to counteract them must be emboldened too, in order to protect their people, their reputations, and their business.