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6 Steps to Building a Better Workplace for Black Employees

30 Sep 2019|by Dina Gerdeman

To support black employees, business leaders must challenge biases and help employees be themselves, according to a new book co-edited by Anthony J. Mayo, Laura Morgan Roberts, and David A. Thomas
black employees

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, some saw it as proof that the color of one’s skin could no longer hold people back from achieving important leadership roles in the United States.

Not true, says Harvard Business School senior lecturer Anthony J. Mayo. “Obama’s election created this false illusion of a post-racial society, where many people thought we had transcended issues of race,” he says. “But that was not the case at all.”

It certainly wasn’t the experience for many of the black business executives included in the book Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience, co-edited by Mayo, University of Virginia Professor Laura Morgan Roberts, who is a visiting scholar at HBS, and David A. Thomas, president of Morehouse College and a former professor at HBS.

“These African American executives never reported feeling, even during the Obama years, that race was no longer relevant or that we had somehow collectively moved beyond race in the workplace,” Roberts says.

The picture that emerges from the essays in Race, Work, and Leadership echo the same message: Race not only still matters in the American workplace, but it remains a powerful barrier that prevents African Americans from ascending to leadership roles.

The data is indeed bleak. While an increasing number of African Americans are earning bachelor’s and graduate degrees, the number of black people in management and senior executive positions remains scarce and stagnant. Today, there are only three black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and not one of them is a woman.

What doesn’t help, the authors say, are recent incidents in the news, including the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the 2018 arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks after employees called the police to complain they were trespassing, even though they were just waiting for a business acquaintance.

“Given the racist rhetoric and vitriol in the air right now, racism is more prevalent today than we would have hoped,” says Mayo, the Thomas S. Murphy Senior Lecturer of Business Administration. “We’ve made some progress in the workplace, but we still have such a long way to go. It’s more important than ever to discuss what organizations can do about it.”

The book describes the experiences of African American workers and offers advice to black employees who seek to advance in their careers. It also provides these recommendations for companies that are intent on building diverse workplaces:

1. Encourage employees to talk about race

After two fatal police shootings of black men in 2016, Tim Ryan of PwC asked his staff to gather for a series of conversations about race. Two years later, when one of PwC’s own black employees was shot to death by an off-duty police officer, Ryan emailed his employees with a plea to keep talking.

Yet, the explicit discussion of race is considered taboo at many companies, and, more often than not, business leaders remain silent on the issue. That cloak of silence from the top tends to enfold all employees. Ellis Cose, an author of several books about race and public policy, writes that young black professionals who aspire to advance to senior leadership positions typically adopt the strategy of remaining silent about race and inequality to avoid being labeled “agitators.”

In a 2017 study by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and colleagues, 78 percent of black professionals said they have experienced discrimination or fear that they or their loved ones will, yet 38 percent felt it is never acceptable to speak about their experiences of bias at their companies.

 

black issues

All that hushing of the topic can make African American workers feel as if companies are not willing to address their concerns that their talent is being undervalued or squandered, which can leave them feeling less engaged with colleagues, less satisfied with their work, and less loyal to their companies, according to the book.

2. Help white colleagues contribute to the race conversation

Black leaders shouldn’t be the only ones talking about race, the authors say. It’s time for their white colleagues to stop pretending racial tensions don’t exist and start initiating conversations at work, even if they worry about feeling uncomfortable or saying the wrong thing.

“We can’t just rely on the small percentage of black executives who reach the top to wave the flag. That’s an unfair burden,” Mayo says. “If real systemic change is going to happen, it has to come from the white majority who often are in positions that give them greater leverage to change the environment. That being said, white employees may worry about their ability to effectively discuss race, but if they approach it with a sense of openness and learning, they can play an important role in advocating change.”

Managers must learn to create safe spaces at work to have these conversations and let employees know it’s OK to talk about incidents in the news, like police shootings of black people, by asking them, “How does that make you feel?”

“When black employees bring their full identities to work, they bring a set of stories and experiences that can be both painful and powerful, yet it can be hard for them to let their guard down and connect,” Mayo says. “So, creating the psychologically safe environment to have these conversations is important, with managers learning how to provide the proper support during these discussions.”

3. Tackle systemic inequality, starting with the corporate culture

Many organizations have created diversity and inclusion programs in an attempt to recruit and retain more minorities, but the initiatives often fall short, the authors say.

The problem: These programs tend to focus on helping black employees fit into the status-quo culture, rather than eliminating systemic inequality within their organizations. Companies should focus on managing injustice, rather than “managing blackness,” Courtney McCluney and Veronica Rabelo write in their chapter of the book.

[Read an excerpt from Race, Work, & Leadership.]

Companies can start by using data analytics to assess whether employees feel included on their teams and are treated fairly within their larger organizations. “These surveys should be broken down by demographic categories, including race and gender, to identify certain populations that have a lower engagement or sense of commitment to the organization,” Roberts suggests.

4. Keep confronting racial bias in hiring

Companies should train managers to root out racial bias from their hiring and recruitment processes. They should also invest in retaining black professionals, in part by reinforcing the message that race will not be a barrier to advancement.

“Some of the most difficult conversations about creating racially diverse organizations are getting sidelined.”

That’s especially important today, since inclusion programs have shifted in recent years toward recognizing more forms of diversity—based on gender and sexual orientation, for instance. Employers need to make sure that discussions about race aren’t getting lost as they work to make other groups feel like they belong.

“It’s good that we’re recognizing more forms of diversity,” Roberts says. “But, it seems like we’re talking more generally about belongingness now, and some of the most difficult conversations about creating racially diverse organizations are getting sidelined. We have to make sure we aren’t erasing race from the conversation.”

5. Support employees so that they can be themselves

Research shows that minorities at work feel pressure to create “facades of conformity,” suppressing some of their personal values, feeling unable to bring their whole selves to work, and believing they should nod in agreement with company values, according to the book.

Mayo says creating opportunities for people to bring their authentic selves to work boosts engagement and helps employees contribute more to the organization.

Creating a support network for workers can go a long way. Research shows that when professionals from diverse backgrounds have solid relationships with their managers and co-workers, they’re more satisfied and committed to their jobs. These relationships can grow through day-to-day work interactions, but also through informal get-togethers.

For instance, employees at one consulting company started a book club that focused on black writers and coordinated visits to African American museums and historical sites. And when American Express was looking to gain a better understanding of its African American customers, company officials tapped black employees for their insight, which helped signal that race is important, the authors say.

6. Be mindful of the “mini me” phenomenon

Managers should also check themselves when they evaluate their employees’ performance and advancement potential, taking a hard look at whether they’re choosing a “mini me” when they hand out a plum assignment or consider promotions, Roberts says.

“A lot of managers will say, ‘This guy has potential because he reminds me of myself when I was younger.’ Some people get a pass, and there’s a lower bar to being given an opportunity, while other people have a higher bar based on their identity,” she says. “So, it’s important to be race conscious when evaluating people’s potential to make sure these decisions aren’t biased.”

Once that potential is identified, managers should coach their workers, provide regular feedback, and champion them, showing them they have their backs as they learn and even make mistakes.

“With an underrepresented group, you need to have managers in your corner who are going to have some skin in the game, put themselves out there, and support you in your career, just as they would support your majority counterparts,” Mayo says. “They’re not just going to throw you into the deep end of the pool and expect you to survive on your own. Instead, they’ll stick with you to provide the support you need to succeed.”

About the Author

Dina Gerdeman is senior writer at Harvard Business School Working Knowledge. [Image: PeopleImages]


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