You may have noticed your employees of color, especially your Black employees, have been a bit different this week. In addition to being the racial group most impacted by COVID-19 in the U.S., Black people are feeling the emotional toll of the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, on May 25. This latest in a growing number of Black men and women injured or killed by law enforcement officers brought race relations in this country front and center as protesters fill the streets to express their frustrations with racial injustice and police brutality.
As conversations turn to focus on the systemic oppression of Black people, workplace talks, even those held in our remote-working environments, have taken on a layer of tension and discomfort.
In my work as an inclusion and diversity strategist, one of the main questions leaders are asking at this complex time is “What do I say?” or “How should I speak to my Black employees right now?” Here are some tips to help white leaders manage Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in light of current events.
Mindfulness, in this context, means you are aware of the current climate and you consider it as you behave. The current climate is one of heightened emotion, fear, and exhaustion. Now isn’t an ideal time for passing light conversations and small talk.
Many Black people are emotionally exhausted by the news coming out of Minneapolis, consumed with supporting family members affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, or overwhelmed with figuring out how to best show up in support of the many causes that have arisen since George Floyd’s death. Being aware of the climate can help managers communicate responsibly in light of the circumstances.
Remember: It’s not about how you feel. You may very well feel fine. Good leadership is about being able to consider the
impact the protests are having on those you support and communicate from that place.
Manage your own curiosity
Right now, everyone is curious about either the civil unrest or George Floyd’s death. The instinct is to ask Black friends and colleagues for help and perspectives, but that’s not the best step. The best approach is to do your own research to understand what is happening in the world.
The Black community is presently feeling overwhelmed with questions because so many people had their eyes opened to the depth of systemic racism in the U.S. and want to know more. I recommend leaders start to satisfy their curiosity by taking control of their own learning through research on the internet, ordering and reading books, and watching relevant programming to learn. While the topic feels very complex, there is a wealth of information that can help people understand more.
Respect the individual
Black people are people just like anyone else, simple as that.
Make sure you don’t treat anyone as a spokesperson. One Black person can’t tell you how all Black people feel or think right now or in general. It is also unwise to assume what anyone needs or thinks based on what you may have seen or read online.
Respecting someone means that you interact with them politely, responsibly, and without any pretenses or assumptions about their identity or needs.
A word of caution here: This does not mean you do not see color. Comments such as “I don’t see color” discount a critical aspect of a person’s identity. Respect means “I see you and I will treat you well no matter your unique identity.”
Extend explicit support and offer autonomy
Questions like “Are you okay?” or “How can I help?” regardless of intent can feel painfully out of touch right now. As racial injustice in this country is a centuries-old problem, broad questions like this can feel lazy instead of supportive.
A better approach to extend support is to be explicit about what you are offering to support. “Do you need to take a couple days off?” or “Would you like some support on this project?” are offers of support that do not put the burden on the person impacted to provide a solution. Asking “Are you comfortable presenting on Friday?” is better than assuming someone will tell you they are dealing with a lot.
If you’re still uncertain, a great place to start is to ask yourself what you can offer that might be useful and extend that as a choice instead of issuing blanket statements that may require emotional wherewithal for someone who is already emotionally impacted.
Be prepared for unexpected responses
Remember, emotions are running high, which means that capacity is running low. Be prepared for the possibility that your Black employees will not want to speak, or that they may express how they feel passionately. It is possible that some employees may dive into work and others may be too distracted to focus. There is no one way that people will manage racial trauma, and not every person will have a reaction.
Keep an open mind about how to best support your employees based on their unique needs and behavior. Grant grace for short responses or even very expressive ones. Take nothing personally, and try to keep an open mind as you navigate this tense moment.
Avoid being silent
It may seem ideal to wait until things “die down” to speak up, but silence right now can come across as uncaring or dismissive. At a minimum, speak to all staff (no need to single out people by race), and let them know that you are aware there is a lot going on in the country around racial injustice that may impact employees emotionally. Encourage people to please bring any concerns to you that may arise so you have the opportunity to help. It may turn out that no one comes to speak to you—and that is okay. Your goal is to make sure that your employees know you are there to support them no matter what is going on.
Things are changing very rapidly in this country. Just days ago many employees hesitated to say the words “racism,” or “Black” or “white,” in the workplace. Now many companies are eager to responsibly discuss racial equity among their workforce.
Figuring out the right footing to engage in this new climate is going to take everyone a bit of time. Pack your patience and be willing to extend grace to others as we all adapt to our changing work and personal environments.
Amber Cabral is a former Fortune 1 executive who is now a diversity and inclusion consultant to major retailers and the Fortune 500 at her company, CabralCo.