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In May 2020, after the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and the release of a video of a white woman making a false police report about Chris Cooper, a Black man, America’s attention became focused on a plague that has troubled the nation for centuries. Racism and racial discrimination are deeply woven into the fabric of America, and the consequences of both are inequality and, too often, untimely death for Black Americans.
While these are the most recent cases that have made national news, countless more are undocumented by the media but are regularly witnessed, lived, and experienced within the Black community. Each case illustrates the injustice, inequities, and mortal threat that Black people in the U.S. live with every day.
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Many people across the country and the world have been profoundly distressed by cases of racism and police violence against Black people, but each of these events also inflicts particular trauma within the Black community. Research shows that witnessing the deaths of Black men and Black women induces both collective trauma — trauma experienced by a large group of people — as well as racial trauma, which results from direct or indirect experiences of racism and discrimination.1
Why Should Organizational Leaders Respond?
It is critical for leaders to engage with the issue of racism and discrimination, both because of its effect on employees and in order to demonstrate their genuine commitment to diversity and human rights. Societal injustice and racism are harmful to employees’ psychological and physical health.2 Employees’ experiences of collective and racial trauma can also hurt their organizations if they are unable to focus at work or feel unsupported by their colleagues or managers. Furthermore, how organizations respond to social justice issues will be viewed as an indicator of their true support for diversity.3 Employees, job seekers, and customers may see the choice to stay silent on issues of police violence as signaling a lack of concern about Black people generally.
An organization may choose not to take a public position on racial injustice due to a belief that it’s prudent to remain uninvolved with societal or political issues. However, that stance is problematic for several reasons. First, racism is not a political issue. It is wrong — full stop. Acknowledging this truth is an expression of core values. Second, silence is itself a position, particularly on an issue of fundamental values where there is no neutral territory between right and wrong. Appearing to ignore the issue can send the message that the organization does not consider it sufficiently important or, worse, that the organization does not recognize racism as a problem. Lastly, silence on this issue undermines any claims the organization makes that it supports diversity, and it can damage its standing among employees and customers to whom those values are important.
What Can Organizational Leaders Do?
So, what should organizational leaders do to help employees cope with these events? Here are five actions your organization can take right now to contribute to addressing the national issue of racism and help your employees cope.
Speak up. Organizational leaders have to speak up. Organizations should reassure employees about their stance on diversity and against violence, hate, and racism. This can come in the form of an internal email to employees, a direct message from the CEO, or a public statement to the press or via social media. We have seen many examples of this in late May and early June, including statements from major organizations such as Netflix, Peloton, and Ben & Jerry’s. Acknowledging the problem and the pain that employees feel can help them feel supported and provide some comfort during this extremely stressful time.
Educate yourself. Organizational leaders should make sincere efforts to educate themselves about the ways in which systemic racism is affecting the lives of Black people in the U.S. This goes beyond watching the news coverage of the deaths mentioned above; rather, it means seeking out materials, research, and books that provide information on the problem of systemic racism and how to be part of the solution. For a primer to set the stage on systemic racism in America, we recommend reading White Rage, by Carol Anderson; The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander; and White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo. For insight on how you can actively become part of the solution, we recommend How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi, and The Person You Mean to Be, by Dolly Chugh. Gaining a better understanding of the deep-seated issues involved in systemic racism and specific ways you can support minorities will help you to become a better ally and take more effective action as part of the solution. It can also build your capacity to empathize with the experiences of Black people in America, including your Black employees, and highlight the ways in which systemic racism goes beyond policing to include everyday phenomena such as bias and discrimination in the workplace.
Walk the talk. While speaking up and acknowledging injustice is important, leaders must go beyond this to engage in behaviors that substantiate their words. Black Americans are especially sensitive to discrepancies between what leaders say and what they do.4 Leaders can offer both direct support to individual employees and large-scale institutional support. One example is creating spaces to have honest and open dialogues about how employees are being affected by these societal events. These spaces can provide support for those who need it; they can also offer opportunities for people with less knowledge of systemic racism to learn from their coworkers about how these events are affecting them. These conversations can help to improve the organizational climate and coworker dynamics within the company.
Invest. Put your money where your mouth is. Organizations can look for ways to align business activities and corporate social responsibility engagements by supporting initiatives that seek to improve conditions for minorities and vulnerable populations. One example of supporting initiatives is directing corporate giving to antiracism efforts. Companies such as Apple, Intel, and Glossier have recently made donations to various campaigns seeking to improve racial justice. Another way to address this is to withdraw funding from business partners that are directly contributing to the problem. The University of Minnesota recently provided a prime example of this by severing most of its ties with the Minneapolis Police Department.
Engage in introspection. Leaders should be introspective about the structures and systems that allow racism and hate to thrive. The systemic racism that makes it possible for tragic and often fatal events in policing to occur in our society also often underlie systems that are less deadly but still damaging within our organizations. Indeed, racial bias disadvantages Black employees in almost every aspect of the employment cycle, including selection, salary negotiations, upward mobility, and retention.5 The racial bias within organizations is often subtle and difficult to detect; however, it occurs in all industries and every kind of job, and it contributes to myriad consequences, including the continued economic inequality between Black and white Americans.
The recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd are tragic. They have prompted an outpouring of expressions of sadness, anger, and outrage from people around the country, and many of your employees are suffering grief and trauma. Your organization can take action that helps employees through this period of grief and contributes to dismantling the systems of racism.
1. L. Comas-Díaz, G.N. Hall, and H.A. Neville, “Racial Trauma: Theory, Research, and Healing: Introduction to the Special Issue,” American Psychologist 74, no. 1 (January 2019): 1-5.
2. E.A. Pascoe and L. Smart Richman, “Perceived Discrimination and Health: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Psychological Bulletin 135, no. 4 (July 2009): 531-554.
3. E.N. Ruggs, K.M. Summerville, and C.K. Marshburn, “The Response to Social Justice Issues in Organizations as a Form of Diversity Resistance,” in “Diversity Resistance in Organizations,” 2nd ed., ed. K.M. Thomas (New York: Routledge, 2020), 123-148.
4. T. Simons, R. Friedman, L.A. Liu, et al., “Racial Differences in Sensitivity to Behavioral Integrity: Attitudinal Consequences, In-Group Effects, and ‘Trickle Down’ Among Black and Non-Black Employees,” Journal of Applied Psychology 92, no. 3 (May 2007): 650-665.
5. L. Quillian, D. Pager, O. Hexel, et al., “Meta-Analysis of Field Experiments Shows No Change in Racial Discrimination in Hiring Over Time,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, no. 41 (September 2017): 10870-10875; M. Hernandez, D.R. Avery, S.D. Volpone, et al., “Bargaining While Black: The Role of Race in Salary Negotiations,” Journal of Applied Psychology 104, no. 4 (April 2019): 581–592; T.H. Cox and S.M. Nkomo, “Gender Differences in the Upward Mobility of Black Managers: Double Whammy or Double Advantage?” Sex Roles 21, no. 11-12 (December 1989): 825-839; and K.A. Couch, R. Fairlie, and H. Xu, “Racial Differences in Labor Market Transitions and the Great Recession,” in “Transitions Through the Labor Market: Work, Occupation, Earnings and Retirement,” eds. S.W. Polachek and K. Tatsiramos (Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Publishing, 2018).