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Responding to the Racism Pandemic: Employer Strategies for Supporting Employees When They Need It Mo Responding to the Racism Pandemic: Employer Strategies for Supporting Employees When They Need It Mo

Responding to the Racism Pandemic: Employer Strategies for Supporting Employees When They Need It Most

I recently spoke with a colleague and mentor of mine about the events that have transpired since the murder of George Floyd. During the conversation, my colleague, who is white, told me that several of his Black childhood friends posted stories on social media about their experiences with racism. He mentioned that the posts were eye opening because he never knew the extent to which his friends had faced such blatant racism throughout their lives.

In response, I told him I was not surprised he did not know about his friends’ experiences because many Black people do not openly share their experiences of racism out of fear of ridicule or retaliation. I then asked him to always remember it is a blessing to be able to learn about racism through reading about it, rather than personally experiencing it yourself.

Over the past few months, while we have been quarantined by one invisible pandemic, we have seen the much older pandemic of racism play out again and again to claim the lives of more Black Americans. We watched Ahmaud Arbery chased down and murdered by gunmen while merely going for a jog, Breonna Taylor killed by police in her own home, George Floyd choked to death by a police officer, and Rayshard Brooks die after getting shot in the back by a police officer. These latest incidents of racial violence have led to protests against racial injustice and police brutality all over the United States and in more than 30 countries around the globe.

While these killings were viewed by Americans of all races, they had a particular impact on Black Americans, many of whom have been left feeling traumatized, scared, depressed, and angry. And while I do not speak for all Black people or all Black employees, I am familiar with this topic because in addition to being a labor and employment lawyer who counsels employers on how to handle workplace issues, I am a Black man in America who shares those feelings.

Speaking from my dual perspective, I would urge the leaders of every workplace to take a moment to realize that many of their Black employees and co-workers are simply not OK and they are working every day while trying to suppress the trauma, fear, depression, and anger they feel. As you are reading this article, there might be a Black mother participating in a Zoom meeting while worrying her son might not make it back home because he left the house wearing a hoody or a Black father on a conference call exasperated by the challenge of explaining racism to his young children. Another co-worker might be in her office feeling dispirited because she saw her supervisor “like” a social media post calling the people protesting for racial equality “thugs.” On top of that, many Black employees feel the added burden of trying to make sure their majority co-workers do not face the discomfort of talking about the racism they themselves have experienced throughout their lives.

Given these conflicting emotions, how can an employer adequately respond to the events that have transpired over the past few months and show support to their Black employees who may be struggling at this time? While there is no playbook outlining the exact steps employers should take to address issues related to racial injustice, there are several actions employers can take to promote racial equity both inside and outside of the workplace.
  1. Get Educated: For starters, employers should take concrete steps to get educated. Let’s face it, subject matter related to racism and/or people of color is seldom taught in schools. (Pop quiz:  how many readers had ever heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 before the past few weeks?) Thus, employers should allocate time and resources to educating their leaders and employees about different races, the history of racism, and how racial intolerance has historically impacted Black and brown people in society and in the workplace. There are many educational resources available, including books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and instructional discussion guides. Employers can also hire experts or consultants who can provide training on race relations and issues related to unconscious bias in the workplace.

    Some employers may be resistant to the idea of educating employees about issues related to racism, fearing the uncomfortable conversations that will inevitability follow such education. I would encourage those employers to remember that the uncomfortable conversations pale in comparison to the actual racism many of their Black employees and co-workers may have faced or will face in their lifetimes. Furthermore, employers should recognize that the mental well-being of employees impacts productivity, output, and profitability no less than their physical well-being. Thus, employers should not hesitate to invest resources in cultivating a workplace environment that allows all of their employees to feel welcomed and valued.
  2. Engage: Beyond education, employers should proactively connect with their Black employees. In doing so, employers should primarily focus on listening, while also engaging in thoughtful and genuine dialogue that shows they are trying to understand and empathize with what their employees are feeling. While employers should not force an employee to speak if he or she does not wish to do so, employers should consider offering employees the opportunity to speak with someone on a one-on-one basis or participate in a small group discussion. Employers should also make mental health resources available for employees who prefer to speak with a professional.
  3. Declare: While education and engagement are two of the most effective ways to support employees during these difficult times, employers should also take steps to declare to their employees and the world where they stand with regard to racial injustice. George Floyd was murdered on May 25, and since that time, many corporations have issued statements denouncing police brutality and racial injustice. While such a corporate declaration, without more, cannot stop racism or produce racial equity, it can help to bring about awareness and demonstrate that a company stands against bigotry and hatred.
  4. Invest: Finally, employers should consider investing meaningful financial resources into the promotion of racial equity. For example, employers can donate to organizations that advocate for social change, support Black-owned businesses and vendors, and increase efforts to recruit candidates from historically black colleges and universities. Employers can also identify specific social justice issues and develop task forces aimed at advancing those issues. These are just a few ways employers can promote racial equity beyond the four walls of the workplace.
Many employers may not fully understand the history of racism or the challenges their Black employees are facing at this moment in time. To those employers, I would respectfully say to you the same thing I told my colleague. You are blessed to have the opportunity in 2020 to learn about the pandemic of racism that has been plaguing your Black colleagues for centuries. I implore you to take advantage of this blessing and not miss this opportunity to get educated and take actions that will help your workplace and community finally heal.

For more information, or for assistance addressing employee issues in your workplace, contact Charles E. Bush II or any member of Ice Miller's Labor, Employment, and Immigration Group.

This publication is intended for general information purposes only and does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice. The reader should consult with legal counsel to determine how laws or decisions discussed herein apply to the reader’s specific circumstances.
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