Like everyone else in the world right now, my family and I have been adjusting to a new and unprecedented way of life. This “new normal” has compelled us to change how we work and live, as we reinvent our daily routine and face a different set of challenges.
I’ve heard it said that racism is a pandemic – one that has infected systems for centuries. So, as we find ourselves in the current circumstances, what can we learn from how we have been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic?
1. This is both a macro and a micro issue which requires action from top leadership and at the regional, local and individual levels. We can put all the mentoring programs and bias interrupters in place but if an employee’s specific concern or bad behavior isn’t addressed, our progress will be stalled.
2.Mistakes are expected. The best way to handle this is to identify the issue, listen and learn without getting defensive. If we accept that we don’t have all the answers, it is more likely that we can address the issues. There is no shame in saying “I don’t know what I don’t know” and “I know what I don’t know”.
3.This will take all of us and we’re in this together. In the past, there have been questions and debates as to whether we should talk about race at work. The fact is, the consequences of not talking or acting are dire. They impact employee safety, wellbeing, engagement, retention – and the list goes on. Whatever our personal views, our role in organizations and the role of HR is clear – this isn’t a choice, we can’t opt out. And, we can’t wait.
The only way to combat racism is to recognize systems, processes and practices of injustice and work to break them down – even if it’s one person at a time
In these early days, companies have been quick to make statements, hold town halls and listening sessions, empower Employee Resource Groups and share tools and resources to help others engage in productive dialogue. And, companies that are committed to sustainable and impactful change are taking the time to formulate their long-term plans.
It’s an uncomfortable position to be in – especially as a leader – to take the time to do the right thing.
But, in moving swiftly to action, even with some input, we’ve presumed to know what others need, pushed them to respond on our timelines and we’ve acted against our intent of respect, equity and inclusion. If rooting out racism is important now, it should still be important in a few months. If bringing about bold change is important, it should still be important in a few months. And, if we want to lift up Black and African American employee voices and enable our colleagues to reach their highest potential, that should still be important in a few months. We can do our own work in the meantime and when our employees are ready to tell us what they need, we should be ready to listen. This is where we need swift action.
So where do we go from here?
Educate yourself: understand what might be contributing to the issues and use the plentiful resources out there, including professionals, to be informed. Then, reflect on what you’ve learned and what you might notice with this new level of awareness. Are there systems of injustice that have benefitted you? Are there micro aggressions and instances of bias that you can now recognize?
Listen: seeking to understand Black/African American experiences sounds obvious at this time – but resist the urge to offer your experiences in a way you can relate. Many people can point to a time when they’ve felt like an outsider or were treated unfairly but it’s hard to draw comparisons across experiences so it’s best to just listen. After all, if you’re truly interested in learning more, active listening over listening to respond will serve both you and your colleagues in the end.
Start the conversation and keep it going: check in on your Black/African American colleagues and those that may be impacted directly. Your colleagues may not be ready to talk but most people will appreciate your genuine concern for their wellbeing. And remember, it’s ok if you make a mistake. Seek progress, not perfection.
Speak up, even when it’s uncomfortable: being an ally isn’t just about posting your thoughts on social media, but engaging in everyday situations when you see bias or racism occur. The situation with Amy Cooper revealed that while overt racism is easy to spot, it isn’t enough to be “not racist”. The only way to combat racism is to recognize systems, processes and practices of injustice and work to break them down – even if it’s one person at a time.
Broaden your network: this isn’t just about who you interact with but how. Take a minute to assess who you spend time with and who you take the time to understand. You may find that you can start to have different conversations with those whom you’ve known for years if you set the stage for active and empathetic listening.
As organizational leaders, we should be working to listen, learn and understand what more we can do. Our individual actions don’t need to be perfect, but we need to start somewhere.
In a mere matter of moments, 8 minutes and 46 seconds to be more precise, our world changed. It forced a reckoning for more people to confront the injustice so many of our colleagues, neighbors and friends in the Black and African American community have faced over multiple generations. So now is the time, more than any other moment, where we need to act.
On my desk at home, I keep a book right beside my computer written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It reminds me every day that we are in the middle of a movement that could and should change the course of this country and others around the world. It inspires me to do better every day as my actions and those around me are needed if we are all to realize the full potential of the American Dream. And as I sit here to read and re-read the title, it moves me to truly understand Why We Can’t Wait.