The protests surrounding the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans underscore our society’s long-standing struggles with race, privilege, and prejudice. As citizens, we’ve responded with feelings of anger, grief, frustration, and hopelessness. As employees, those emotions can’t be left at the door come Monday morning.
Finding the right words for times like these is seldom easy. But through meaningful action, companies and their HR teams can support and stand in solidarity with Black employees. We asked members of the Resources for Humans community to share how they’re doing just that.
While it’s normal to feel at a loss for words, most HR leaders agreed that silence wasn’t an option. Employers made it clear where they stood through a variety of means, both internal and external — including all-hands meetings, email communications, and conference calls. But rather than offer vague platitudes, HR leaders advised companies to take strong, specific stances on issues of equality. The first step was getting the terminology right.
“Being specific in messaging is great. That means not using terms like ‘POC’ and minority. While they mean well, they don’t make employees of specific groups heard. Asian Americans are struggling because there have been so many hate attacks in the U.S., and Black Americans are hurting because of police brutality and the cycle of racism in this country,” said Christina Holder, Employee Experience Coordinator at Clubhouse Software.
Further, remember that taking a stand for change isn’t a one-and-done proposition. In your statement, make it clear what comes next. What will you do to make good on your promise to fight racism? How will you hold leaders accountable if they don’t follow through?
“Another part is to ensure that your company takes a strong anti-racism stance. Don’t just say you’re against racism, put money towards it. Evaluate vendors you work with. What are their values? Who are your customers? Be very public about not wanting to be associated with companies that don’t share similar values...Create an accountability system so this isn’t forgotten in six months,” Holder said.
Employee mental health is top of mind these days. But simply offering help through your employee assistance program isn’t enough. HR professionals advised that it was especially important to reach out to Black colleagues individually to see if they needed time to grieve, decompress, or just take time for themselves — no questions asked.
“This situation with George Floyd was the straw that broke the camel's back for a lot of people, and especially for Black people. I think reinforcing taking time to grieve or taking mental health days to your non-white teammates is extremely important as they come to you for comfort and counsel,” said Franky Rhodes, Recruiter at Lola.com. Not all employees will readily admit to needing that time, so managers may need to do more than simply offer the option.
“A lot of us are not brought up in an environment that encourages caring for one’s mental health, so as you get to know your minority teammates, let them know that decompressing after an event like this is vital,” Rhodes said. His manager removed the burden of opening up and admitting to needing time off. “I still felt somewhat off about telling her about this situation and how I was feeling. She stopped me immediately and kicked me offline for the day on Friday. I felt so cared for and that's the kind of support some of us need,” he said.
Morgan Williams, HR Manager at Casper, seconded that notion. Understanding that Black managers may be just as affected as their reports, she encouraged them to lead by example and take time for themselves, too. “Black people were not trained to protect their mental health and take time. If you ask us how we are feeling, generally we will say we’re fine or okay...It's important as a leader to just give them the time off, don't ask. It's also important that you do it for yourself as well,” Williams said.
“When you do this, it shows people of color you support the time off and allow them to partake in something that can benefit them while also feeling like they haven't done anything wrong or different from everyone else,” she said.
Issuing a public or internal statement is one thing — following through with action is another. That’s especially true when it comes to having the one-on-one conversations discussed earlier. Rather than defer responsibility to a diversity and inclusion taskforce or ERG, HR should feel empowered to call on leaders to lead by example or pick up the slack.
“I made myself completely available to our executive team. I think these conversations need to be encouraged by leadership, and me being both in HR and Black at my company, I felt it was important that they know I am coming to them and holding them responsible for kicking off these convos,” Rhodes said.
Making that statement matters no matter how large or diverse your company is. One Minneapolis-based community member shared how her company’s leadership team approached addressing one employee specifically.
“We have one Black man on our team and he is actually fairly new. Our CEO had very candid and vulnerable conversations with our team over the weekend. She called the one employee who was probably going through the most emotions. She told him, ‘We want you to know that we recognize you are going through something unlike any of our employees. We are here for you in whatever capacity you need,’” she said.
“‘We want to do better as a company and we want you at the table. Your voice matters.’ It was powerful. I think an honest and genuine conversation leading with respect is a great start,” she said.
In addition to engaging with employees individually, HR teams created spaces where employees could open up in a group setting. This took on a variety of different formats, ranging from company-wide panel discussions to smaller, more private Zoom calls. For some employees, the experience will be less about reflection and more about listening — and learning.
“This ideally is a place for people of color who feel safe to share how they're doing. Try to keep the white voices to a minimum. It can be a really powerful way for them to reflect on the lived experience they'll never know,” said Adrienne Barnard, SVP People Operations & Experience at AdmitHub. Given the nuance involved, she recommended having a dedicated facilitator present for these conversations.
“This isn't about solving problems, it's about using space, grace, and empathy to share. Amplify Black voices if you are using examples, and don't co-opt their words or actions. Be prepared for silence, since it enables and allows people to gain the courage to speak up,” Barnard said.
Nneka M. Craigwell, an Atlanta-based senior HR leader, seconded the importance of having these conversations. “Many think what’s happening right now isn’t work related, and they’re mistaken. Every day, employees bring unspoken concerns, situations and a host of other ‘things’ taking up space in their mind. In a society where everyone touts transparency, let’s be sure to speak openly about all of it. One person cannot possibly have all the answers, but collectively, we can learn from one another and create safe spaces for open, honest dialogue,” Craigwell said.
Within the HR community, leaders were also sharing links to articles, videos, and other learning resources that they could turn to for guidance. “Here’s the deal: If we can run 2.23 miles, we can spend 12 minutes a day or a week learning about systemic racism and how to combat it. People pros have to take the lead,” said Adam Rosenfield, a Texas-based HR and recruiting leader. Rosenfield had started an open-source listing of articles, podcasts, and other resources for HR professionals.
Companies aren’t limited to moral support and words of encouragement. With support from leadership, HR teams can help make a tangible, positive impact that extends beyond worklife. Employers donated their time and money to causes aligned with equality and the Black Lives Matter movement. For some in the community, doing so wasn’t just a plus, it was a prerequisite for saying anything at all.
“This is not a time to start having these conversations because it's the trendy thing to do. Unless your organization or company actually works on issues of police brutality and violence against the Black community on a regular basis or puts their money where their mouth is, your company shouldn't be saying anything publicly about this. It's performative,” said Chris Sinclair, Executive Director of External Affairs at FLIP National.
“There are organizations that do this work on a regular basis, and for us to use our voice to drown theirs out rather than uplifting their voices and their work would be performative on our part,” Sinclair said.
There’s a long list of nonprofits, collectives, and funds employers can align themselves with and donate to. Some of the most shared options include:
In addition to monetary donations, companies also gave their employees time off to demonstrate or contribute to a cause. On “Blackout Tuesday,” Conde Nast gave employees the day off to march in solidarity with demonstrators. Some companies gave employees the entire week.
“We’ve taken action through giving time and money to anti-racist programs, organizations, and businesses. Our Black employees are taking this week away from work. Managers are meeting with their teams one-on-one to learn how we can best support individuals. We are not finished, but this is where we are today, as we continue to learn, act, and repeat,” said Erin Noel, Director of People at Stink Studios.
Inaction was never an option for HR. Employees aren't just watching your leadership team's response, they're watching yours.
“Your people need to know that you care and that you are willing to listen. Everyone is processing this pain differently. Not only are the African American people affected listening but others from different races, religions and backgrounds. I, we, and they are paying attention to your next move,” said Khalilah Olokunola, VP of HR at TRU Colors Brewing.
The last few months have been marked by unprecedented challenges for HR professionals, managers, and employees. You don't have to figure it out alone. To share your experiences, ask questions, or learn from other practitioners, join the free Resources for Humans Slack channel.