Week of 1 June 2020
Calls for companies to take meaningful action against racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death intensify; company leaders are urged to acknowledge the harm, affirm people’s right to safety and personhood and use their power to effect change (Harvard Business Review)
Companies have been vocal in denouncing systemic racism in the wake of the death of George Floyd on 25 May, an African-American man who died in Minneapolis after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by a white law enforcement official. Floyd’s death follows that of Breonna Taylor, an African-American woman who was shot by the police in her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky in March, and Ahmaud Arbery, an African-American man who was shot to death while jogging in Brunswick, Georgia in February.
In the Harvard Business Review, Laura Morgan Roberts and Ella F. Washington urge companies to take meaningful action against racism. “No matter your racial, political, or other identity, these events are almost impossible to escape. In particular, millions of Black people and their allies are hurting. And these issues are not ones that organizations or their leaders — from CEOs at the top of the hierarchy to team managers on the frontline — can ignore.”
“While conventional diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives focus on employee engagement and belonging, today’s challenges reach far beyond marginalization in the workplace. We now see and hear Black people who are suffering from the weight of dehumanizing injustice and the open wound of racism that has been festering for centuries.”
The authors reference research by Angelica Leigh and Shimul Melwani published in the Academy of Management (#BlackEmployeesMatter: Mega-Threats, Identity Fusion, and Enacting Positive Deviance in Organizations) to state that the “psychological impact of these public events — and the way it carries over into the workplace — cannot be overstated. … Leaders seeking to create an inclusive environment for everyone must find ways to address these topics.”
The authors provide three common missteps to avoid:
- “Keeping silent. For people not directly impacted by these events, the default response is often silence. … But no one has the perfect words to address atrocities in our society. It is the leader’s responsibility to try, conveying care and concern for all employees but especially targeted groups.”
- “Becoming overly defensive. Another common misstep when approaching uncomfortable conversations about racial injustice is to react defensively, especially when our world views, positions, or advantages are questioned or challenged.” This includes searching for evidence about what the victim did to deserve abuse, or focusing on and judging protestors who engaged in looting.
- “Overgeneralizing. When triggering events occur, there is a tendency to make sweeping generalizations about groups of people involved in the public conflict. … Think about how you can allow your employees to discuss what’s happening without putting them on the spot or asking them to speak for everyone in their identity group.”
The authors offer a framework for meaningful action. “Leaders must not only offer physical and psychological safety. They also have the power and platform to lead change. Statements from the top are valuable, but they are just a start.”
- “Acknowledge. It’s important to acknowledge any harm that your Black and brown coworkers have endured. This means committing to lifelong learning about racism.”
- “Affirm. People are looking for leaders to affirm their right to safety and personhood and help them feel protected. … This means offering continued opportunities for reaction, reflection, conversation, growth, development, impact, and advancement.”
- “Act. Think critically about how you can use your power to effect change. Employees value words of understanding and encouragement, but leaders’ and organizations’ actions have a more lasting impact.” The authors provide examples of this, ranging from the president of the University of Minnesota ending contracts with the Minneapolis Police Department, Georgetown’s president committing to undo the structural elements that sustain the enduring legacy of racism, and Peloton donating $500,000 to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and calling for its members to learn ways to practice anti-racism.