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To empower Black employees, corporate leaders need to understand Black families

A marketing executive of color urges executives to get to know their employees where they live.

To empower Black employees, corporate leaders need to understand Black families
[Source illustration: Gabylya/iStock]
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Given the challenges Black Americans have been facing, my mood is tempered this Black History Month. I’m treating February as a reminder that achieving racial justice and equality with fierce urgency has got to be the goal. We’re seeing some positive signs in the workplace: Reuters recently reported a surge in companies pledging to hire more Black employees. It’s a start. But corporations that are serious about increasing diversity numbers also need to encourage employees of color to “bring their whole selves to work,” as culture experts like to say.

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This year’s Black History Month theme is “The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity.” I’d humbly suggest that any leader seeking to empower their Black team members should strive to better understand the dynamics of Black home and family life.

My own experiences with my family may shed light on why so many Black employees feel disenfranchised in the workplace. My young daughter overheard me once on a work call. She asked, “Mommy, why were you using that funny voice on the phone?” I replied that my work and home voice are different. Thankfully, she didn’t push further. I wasn’t ready to address “code switching,” a common technique among Blacks where we adjust our style of speech to make others feel comfortable. She’d learn this soon enough.

Being Black in a mostly white workforce is stressful. We manage our emotions differently. We push back . . . a little. We express negative emotions strategically and only with colleagues with whom we’ve built trust. We’re overly deferential to avoid being labeled angry or difficult to work with. We don’t open up about ourselves for fear of becoming more unrelatable.

Here’s an example: Networking events are common in business. These are challenging for me because of the small talk. A topic that comes up a lot is college planning: 529 funds, the application process, tuition cost. I am surprised by how many of my peers are stressed out about paying for it. I think about my children and college, too, but as a Black mother, I’m more anxious about my Black son getting through a routine traffic violation without injury. This is what keeps me awake at night. How do I bring this up at a work event?

Bridging the inclusion gap is more than adding color to your workforce. Leaders must get to know their Black employees and their experiences. Socialize with us. Meet us in our communities, read our stories, ask us about our challenges.

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What are the right programs? Here are three: Close the racial pay gap, give paid family leave, and reduce college debt.

Racial pay gap

Recent Census Bureau data reports that across all races, women earned 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. Unsurprisingly, this gap is larger for women of color.

The gap between college-educated white and Black employees also increased between 2000 and 2018. And on average, Black women earn 61 cents for every dollar a white male earns. So over a 40-year career, a Black woman will make $946,120 less than her white male counterpart. This is disconcerting, especially considering our role in the family. An analysis found that 67.5% of Black mothers are the primary or sole breadwinners for their families, compared with 37% of white mothers. For the overwhelming majority of Black families, Black women are the main source of financial support.

The good news is that fixing this is within reach. The Society for Human Resources Management suggests we can confront the racial wage gap by performing annual pay audits, not asking about previous earnings, and using data-driven technology to automate the compensation decision-making process. This takes unconscious biases out of the recruiting and hiring process.

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Paid family leave

Black families have long been expected to care for their older relatives, in addition to caring for their children. A lack of good healthcare, wealth inequality in previous generations, and systematic barriers to quality jobs that leave you in a strong position at retirement are the drivers.

As this takes a massive mental, financial, and physical toll, companies can offer guaranteed paid sick and family leave. Today, 33 million people in the private workforce have no paid sick time to care for themselves. And more than 80% of these workers are without paid leave to care for a family member. This is unacceptable, especially considering COVID-19.

Our global pandemic is hitting Black communities hard. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 33% of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 were Black, while making up just 18% of the community being evaluated. Black families are also facing greater economic difficulties and mental health challenges because of COVID-19.

Without paid leave, we are left more vulnerable. Fixing this will have huge impacts on the Black family.

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Help reduce college debt

Black college graduates have nearly $25,000 more student loan debt than white college graduates. Again, this is because of the racial pay gap and lack of generational wealth that exists in Black families.

For generations, we’ve been paid less while shouldering more responsibility than our counterparts. Our parents and grandparents didn’t have the luxury of saving for their children’s future. Don’t get me wrong, they hoped and prayed we’d go further than they did, but financial limitations were our reality. We borrow more money, but because of the pay gap aren’t able to pay off these debts. Black student-loan borrowers default on their loans at five times the rate of white graduates.

A strong case can be made for the federal government to cancel student debt as reparations. In the absence of this, companies should follow in the footsteps of Google, PwC, and others, and help reduce their employees’ student loans. (This also happens to be a good employee retention strategy for your company.)

It’s time to learn from the past and open the door to a racially just workplace where all employees have what they need to fulfill their human potential and provide for their families and future generations.

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Deanna Ransom is the head of global marketing and DE&I council chair for Televerde, an integrated sales and marketing technology organization.