Nov 17, 2020

Supporting Employees of Color

While 2020 will certainly be remembered for the wrath of COVID-19, it remains to be seen if the summer of 2020 will be a tipping point on the scales of social justice—or if the (much deserved) support of Black businesses will also extend to everyday people of color in the workforce.     

According to a report by Mercer, US employees of color are underrepresented at every single career level (except support staff/operations). And the percentages get smaller each step up the career ladder. Among professionals, managers, senior managers, and executives, the percentages of Black/African American employees are 6%, 5%, 3%, and 2%, respectively. The stats are similar for Hispanic/Latino employees: 7%, 6%, 4%, 3%. Asian/Pacific Islander employees fare slightly better: 11%, 8%, 7%, 6%. For other races/ethnicities/multiracial employees, the stats are consistently dismal: 5%, 4%, 3%, 3%. 

Organizations large and small have vowed to support employees of color. But what does that even look like? More importantly, what should it look like? We asked several experts for practical ways to bring this goal to fruition—sooner, rather than later—and those conversations produced the following advice.  

Acknowledge the Validity of Systemic Racism 

According to Talisa Lavarry, founder of Yum Yum Morale, a workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion firm, and the author of “Confessions From Your Token Black Colleague,” before organizations can make any progress, they must first admit that a problem exists. “It’s important to acknowledge that systemic racism is a valid concern that should be taken seriously,” she says. “People of color have always been mistreated and underrepresented within corporate America.” And she notes that Black women face double discrimination as a result of their race and gender. 

Listen to the Concerns and Ideas of Your Employees of Color

If you’re serious about supporting your employees of color, don’t do anything until you talk to them. “Instead of creating shallow policies or offering empty promises, employers can simply ask their team members to explain their experiences, concerns, and expectations,” recommends Fatimah Pierce, Ph.D., founder and principal at Hickman Rose Strategies, which provides management consulting services for organizations, entrepreneurs, and government agencies.

But this strategy won’t be successful until you create a safe space for them to have these conversations. “Team members will be compelled to speak up if they do not fear repercussions or retaliation, and if they know their recommendations will be taken seriously,” she says.   

Create a POC Affinity Group

One way to create a safe space is through a POC affinity group. “If one doesn’t currently exist, make the announcement that you will be starting one, and in your announcement, invite people to sign up if they’re interested,” advises Dr. Rassheedah Watts, Ed.D., a diversity trainer and allyship coach, and chief diversity officer in Minneapolis, MN. She suggests polling the group to find the best date and time, or choose an allotted time (during work hours) that usually works for your employees. While affinity groups tend to meet once a month, if there’s group interest in meeting more often, that’s acceptable. 

“I recommend that your first meeting have a loose agenda, since the goal of the first meeting is to provide an opportunity for employees to get to know each other better and to learn what employees hope to gain from the group.” While leaders can help in the beginning, Watts says the group should be employee-driven.

“Offer to commit financial resources to help the group thrive, and this can support such activities as book readings or paying for the cost of special speakers.” And she adds that investing in the group serves another purpose as well. “It demonstrates that as an employer, you are invested in the success of the group.”

The importance of a POC affinity group can’t be overstated. Watts says it’s an instant bonding space where employees can let their guard down, speak freely and openly, and just be themselves. “Many of us feel forced to self-censor our facial expressions, our hand movements, our words, and our tone, and POC affinity groups allow employees to take off the mask, even if it’s just for a moment.”

Encourage Self-Care  

A POC affinity group is one way to encourage self-care, but it’s not the only way. However, you’ll need to be proactive and specific when asking how you can help your employees of color.

Adam P. Gordon, Miami-based co-founder of PTO Genius, an HR tech platform that helps companies increase employee satisfaction and engagement, recommends going beyond the usual “How are you,” and asking more specific questions like, “Are you getting enough sleep?” or “What additional resources do you need right now?” Another question to ask: “Is there something the company can do to make your life easier?” 

“By asking questions in this manner, you can hone in on how best to help, and it can also reveal gaps in organizational resources and programs that may need to be ramped up or filled,” Gordon says.

Granted, these are questions that you should be asking all of your employees. However, a combination of factors may make these times more challenging than normal for some employees than others. “During times of racial unrest and Black communities being affected more by COVID-19, Black employees might find that their stress levels at work are increased,” explains Dr. Nicole B. Washington, a board-certified psychiatrist, founder and president of Dr. Nicole Psych in Broken Arrow, OK, and the author of “From Introspection to Action.” 

And she says that allowing them to take leave on short notice, without fear of negative consequences, can help maintain wellness. Gordon agrees. “As work becomes busier or more unpredictable, especially during a crisis, these employees may be reluctant to ask for time off or other accommodations to avoid being seen as less than essential workers.” Both he and Washington recommend flexible work policies that allow the workers to remain productive while also tending to themselves and their family members.

Diversify Projects and Assignments

Diversity workshops are important, but don’t make the mistake of thinking these training sessions will solve all of your problems. “They’re great for exposure and expanding paradigms, but they’re not so hot for the systematic support of POC team members,” says Janice Wilson, software engineer, and diversity consultant and founder of Diversity Decoded. “In addition to training, managers should implement a system to track project distribution among their reports—taking special note that their POC team members are receiving their fair share.”

She recommends this as one of the most practical ways to show your support for employees of color. “By ensuring equitable project distribution, particularly projects of sufficient substance to garner a promotion, managers ensure that all of their reports have equal opportunity to excel in their careers,” Wilson says. “You show support with increased responsibility and recognition when a job is well done; nothing guarantees retention like promotion.” 

Make Accountability a Core Value

You may be doing everything you can to support employees of color, but unless you hold others in the organization accountable, your work is for naught. “You must challenge xenophobic, racist, and biased behaviors as they happen—especially in team settings,” says Gordon. “When left unaddressed, these comments and behaviors become permissible and normalized in workplace culture.”   

And if you haven’t done so already, he also recommends creating a handbook and training managers to root out racial bias in the recruitment and hiring processes.

However, accountability entails more than just holding wayward employees responsible for their actions. It also includes the company holding itself responsible for following through on grievances. “Companies must create a process for POC team members to articulate their particular pain points within the employee experience,” says Kia Roberts, J.D., principal and founder of Triangle Investigations, a group of lawyers, investigators, and policy advisors that perform misconduct investigations in workplaces, schools, and other organizations. Roberts is also a former director of investigations for the NFL. “Whether surveys, a listening tour, or working with outside DEI consultants, companies must be intentional about creating space for POC team members to fully and freely express themselves.”

But it’s not enough to just listen. “Once companies have thoughtfully reflected upon what POC team members have shared about their experiences, companies must be creative and specific about the follow-through process to address these sore spots,” Roberts says. This isn’t just in the best interest of employees. The ability to cultivate adaptability is crucial for business longevity.  

Actively Work to Create a Diverse Work Environment  

There’s another issue your employees of color may be dealing with: imposter syndrome. “Underrepresented minorities are more likely to suffer from the effects of impostor syndrome when their environments lead them to feel like they don’t belong,” explains Washington. “This can lead to negative mental health effects and directly affect job performance.” 

To counter this, she recommends having active HR processes for recruiting from a variety of backgrounds so everyone doesn’t look the same. “Actively recruiting at HBCUs or active internship programs for Black students are great ways to increase diversity in hiring.” But Washington cautions that your retention process must be as intense as your hiring efforts. “Having mechanisms in place to create space for underrepresented minorities on committees and specific leadership training programs for those who are not represented in levels of leadership is key.” 

While these ideas may point you in the right direction, it’s not as simple as creating a checklist of tasks to complete. “Adopting a new idea and having the right intention to support people of color will not be easy, nor is it something that can be managed as a result of attending a talk, training, or workshop,” Lavarry warns. “Companies have to prepare for a long game and commit to creating more inclusive work cultures despite the investment of time and money needed to do so.”

Pierce agrees and says some companies are only marginally invested so they can be in compliance with anti-discrimination laws, etc. “However, employers should embed diversity, inclusion, and equity goals and initiatives into their long-term planning with human and financial resources allocated to implementation, along with a way to evaluate performance along the way.”

About the author

Terri Williams
Terri Williams
Terri Williams is a writer based in Birmingham, AL, who specializes in business, technology, education, real estate, and personal finance – and dabbles in home improvement/décor. She has bylines at The Economist, USA Today, Bankrate, Investopedia, US News & World Report, American Bar Association Journal, Verizon, Realtor.com, Apartment Therapy, and several other clients you’ve probably heard of. Follow her adventures @Territoryone.

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