Black History Month Calls Us to Promote Racial Equity in the Workplace

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People at work

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

- Ida B. Wells

February marks Black History Month, a federally recognized celebration of Black achievement in the United States. While many commemorate this time by looking back at the many and significant contributions African-American individuals have made to this country, employers might celebrate Black History Month 2021 most appropriately with a critical look inward and forward.

As if COVID-19 was not enough for society to manage in 2020, the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, filmed by helpless onlookers, sent shock waves reverberating through our country, and lit anew a smoldering rage against racial inequality worldwide. Protesters took to the streets almost immediately; a minority expressed their fury through destruction of property and violence. Counter-protestors at times confronted them, resulting in further discord, destruction, and even death. Once again, the US was faced with the ugly truth: we continue to struggle with racism in our country, including in our institutions. Though discrimination today may be less insidious than that which led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it nonetheless remains widespread and damaging.

After the Black Lives Matter movement was reignited in 2020, several business leaders were confronted with accusations that their behavior tolerated, contributed to, or even cultivated anti-Black bias in the workplace. In an online sharing of experiences reminiscent of the #MeToo movement, employees spoke out to let corporate leaders know how negative behaviors impacted them. Some of these leaders were probably aware of the animus they harbored or fostered; some have professed that they did not realize the damaging nature of their actions. In the wake of this movement, we have seen a laundry list of CEOs and corporate leaders who have resigned or have been forced out.

Against this national backdrop, what concrete steps can employers take to show their employees that racial equity matters in the workplace?

Identify Complaints and Investigate

It may seem obvious, but employers must conduct an investigation into allegations of racial discrimination and harassment upon receipt of an internal complaint. A threshold matter in any investigation is recognizing complaints when they are made. A recent survey by HR Acuity found that 67% of employees report workplace issues to managers, while only 37% make reports directly to HR. That means managers serve as a first line of defense in the fight against racial discrimination in the workplace—and they should be trained accordingly. What may seem like a casual conversation to the manager may actually be an employee’s report of discrimination. Instruct managers to both recognize reports of racial discrimination or harassment and escalate them to the proper parties in your organization to ensure an investigation occurs.

Complaints of racial discrimination and harassment should be taken at face value and investigated fully, by a neutral third party if budget permits (trust us—it is money well spent). Interview witnesses, prepare a written report, and ensure that all involved know retaliation for reporting or participating in the investigation will not be tolerated. Discipline offenders appropriately, in accordance with your written policies and procedures. Empathetically communicate the results of the investigation to the complainant.

The investigation itself often yields previously unknown but vital information about your workforce. For example, you might learn that inappropriate humor has festered into a racially harassing environment and even though you only received one complaint of discrimination, there are many other instances that have gone unreported. The very fact of an investigation will unequivocally affirm to your employees that they matter, that their voices are heard, and that you are committed to a workplace free from discrimination and harassment.

Obtain Employee Perspectives: Interview and Survey

Perhaps you have not recently—or ever—had any complaints of harassment or discrimination. In our experience, however, no news is not necessarily good news. Therefore, seek out answers from the most valuable asset in your enterprise: your employees. They hold the key to understanding their workplace experience as it relates to racial discrimination and harassment.

Beginning the conversation about racial discrimination in the workplace can be as simple as holding a townhall meeting or listening session, allowing employees to discuss their experiences and perspectives on race. What is happening in the workplace that is or feels like racially-motivated discrimination or harassment? Have employees witnessed harassment or discrimination on the basis of race? What barriers to success and promotion exist in your organization for Black workers and other people of color? What changes can be made to make your workplace feel safer and even honor the racial and cultural backgrounds of your employees? Using this information as a springboard, employers can determine whether further investigation is warranted, whether policies should be amended, and shape future important conversations about race to ensure that employees feel heard, respected, and protected.

Trauma, embarrassment, or fear of retaliation may leave some employees reticent to voice their perspectives on or experiences of racial discrimination in the workplace publicly. In this case, a simple survey (even a quick and low-tech Google Form) will allow employees to share their perspectives privately and give an employer insight as to whether further investigation regarding potential harassment and discrimination is warranted.

The best method of understanding whether and how your workplace grapples with racial discrimination and harassment is to conduct a culture evaluation. Neutral third parties are best suited to conduct these evaluations. Using in-depth interviews of a sampling of employees, they can ask open-ended questions and follow leads that will ultimately yield an accurate picture of how your employees experience their workplaces and what steps can be taken to eliminate or prevent racial discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

Create a Better Workplace Culture

We’ve said this so many times and this is no exception: discrimination and harassment, especially race-related, are often symptoms of a dysfunctional workplace culture. Be assured that workplaces characterized by frequent conflict, gossip, backbiting, grudge-holding, unhealthy competitiveness, crude humor, and general negativity are often the conditions in which racial discrimination and harassment thrive. Businesses that overtly or even tacitly permit such environments are fostering behavior that can result in (compensable) damage to employees. A business’ culture is just as important and deserves as much intentionality as its business plan.

The antidote is to begin with an organization-wide commitment to prohibiting discrimination in any form. This vision should be translated into policies that set high standards for the way in which employees treat one another in the workplace: there is a place for the golden rule in businesses, after all. Updated policies should foster proper training for managers, so they model workplace behavior marked by civility, inclusivity, and a low tolerance for conduct that deviates. Managers should be trained to recognize and deter all forms of mistreatment, especially discrimination related to race, and to empower employees to speak out if they witness or experience it. With careful attention, and learning from mistakes, a business can develop its culture so that behaviors even come close to something that looks like racial discrimination and harassment will be curtailed immediately.

In addition to celebrating Black history this month, employers should shine lights in any negative places in their organizations and bravely commit to being and doing better going forward.