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7 Ways to Support Black Employees

Racial unrest, COVID-19 and the recession will have a long-term impact on Black Americans

A man in a suit is using a laptop in an airport.

​The growing economic and emotional fallout of the coronavirus pandemic and the recession stand to hurt Black workers most of all.

The pandemic and racial inequity have been the defining factors of the summer of 2020. Following the killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day, a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement brought hope to some by sparking what many civil rights advocates consider the most momentous national conversation on racial justice and equality since the 1960s. Others have felt anger that such a movement was needed more than 50 years after Civil Rights-era reforms.

Further underscoring health and socioeconomic inequalities, Black Americans have been contracting and dying from COVID-19 at a rate more than double that of the general population.

Managers should realize that Black employees "may be coming to work dealing with trauma, anger and fear," said Charles Ellis Bush II, an attorney in Ice Miller's Labor and Employment Group, based in Indianapolis. "Employees who are dealing with these emotions may be disengaged at work and unable to perform to their best ability." 

'Black Workers Bear the Heaviest Burden'

There's an old saying about how economic downturns unfairly impact the Black community: "When white America gets a cold, Black America gets pneumonia." Some economists have said that for Black Americans, the Great Recession of 2008-09 was more like a depression.

The current recession is disproportionately harming Black workers: The July jobs report from the U.S. Department of Labor found that while the overall unemployment rate had improved slightly, at 10.2 percent, for Black Americans, it remained at 14.6 percent—unchanged from the previous month. 

And in June, the National Bureau of Economic Research determined that 41 percent of Black-owned businesses had closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, compared to 17 percent of white-owned businesses.

"In the midst of the pandemics of poverty, racism and COVID-19, Black workers bear the heaviest burden of America's inequality," said Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, an adjunct instructor at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and a member of the steering committee of the Poor People's Campaign, a movement focused on racism and economic justice.

3 Employer Strategies for Right Now

It's not enough for employers to think about equality—which means giving the same to everyone—cautioned Sydney Freeman Jr., Ph.D., an associate professor of organizational learning and leadership at the University of Idaho. "If I'm not starting at the same point, then the same amount of resources isn't going to have an equal effect. The focus needs to be on equity," he said—that is, each person getting what they need to succeed.   

1. Reach out to Black employees.

In these unsettled times, organizations should regularly check in with all workers, whether in person or if working remotely.

"Managers should place a special emphasis on connecting with Black employees to show that the employer is trying to understand the issues they may be facing and to reinforce that they are supported in the workplace," Bush suggested.

"Engagement is not always easy, and some employees may push back and say, 'You've never talked to me [before]. Why are you talking to me now?'" Bush said. "In those instances, I would encourage leaders to be willing to humble themselves, let the employee know that he or she is valued and appreciated, and affirm that the employee has a safe place to voice concerns."

2. Provide supplemental support options and encourage employees to use them.

Send out semi-regular reminders about the resources your organization offers. One of these communications may prove to be a lifeline for an employee who is struggling. 

If your company offers mental health services, anticipate workers' questions. Detail the cost to the employee and give other pertinent details. Is there a website that lists suggested providers? Are there telehealth options?

Depending on the needs of the company's employees, small support groups may be able to play a role. These meetings should be a safe space where workers can talk about their experiences or just listen. If a manager or other organizational leader attends these meetings, they can also serve as a place for employees to ask questions and make suggestions.  

3. Develop a formal company statement on racial injustice and inequality. 

By including this message on your organization's website, it signals to current and potential employees that there's awareness of the problem of systemic racism.      

Employers should be proactively trying to understand the experience of what it means to be Black in this country, said Freeman. "The system has been rigged against us. What I mean is that society was not made with the advancement of Black people in mind."

It's important that there's a clear message from leaders in the organization for employees to refer to if they are ever subject to racial hostility or discrimination at work.    

"If employees know from the time they are interviewed that the company is a strong advocate for racial equity and equality, the employer is more likely to attract and retain talented people who are on board with that goal," Bush said.  

4 Employer Strategies for the Long Term

Some of the experts' suggestions for ways to help level the playing field for Black Americans will take more time to implement. 

"The critical point for employers to remember is that the issue of racism will never pass for Black employees. It does not get old, it does not get stale, it does not stop impacting [their] lives," said Bush.

4. Examine the organization behind the scenes.

Now is the time to conduct diversity audits to learn where racial unfairness might hide. Ask HR if it can sort workers based on their job types and levels within the company, and try to uncover clues to discrimination or inequality within the organization by using HR data—employee demographics, exit interviews, employee engagement surveys. Look at promotions, pay and turnover.

"You actually have to focus on race and racism. Be very intentional" when conducting diversity audits, said Enrica Ruggs, a professor of management and the director of the PSI Center for Workplace Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Memphis in Tennessee.

First, focus on Black employees in general. Then break it down further. For example, compare Black women to Hispanic women and to white women. Or look for signs of workplace segregation by job type.  

These kinds of audits should not be a one-time occurrence, Ruggs added. Much racism is structural and has been in place for decades, so expect this to be an ongoing process, she said. 

5. Develop a new hiring plan.

Diversify your hiring and promotion tactics, and find new avenues for reaching a greater variety of prospective employees. If you've already conducted a diversity audit of the company, use what you've learned.

"Just don't rely on what you've always done," said Elise Gould, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. Organizations should take time to devise their plan before there's a pressing need to get a particular position filled. "It's important to realize that it's too late to broaden your [hiring] networks when it's time to post for a job."

Freeman encourages organizations to purposefully look to hire and promote Black employees. "Hire people from historically Black colleges and universities, and not just Black people from elite institutions," he said. "Institutions that are less prestigious can still have a lot of great talent."

6. Consider "diversity" and "inclusion" separately.

They're not the same, and managers should encourage organizations to have policies in place for both. "Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance once you're there," Ruggs explained.

Organizations can fulfill their diversity requirement by hiring a certain number of diverse employees, but often, that's where they stop. Inclusion happens only after an employee has been brought on board and has been integrated within the organization. It's critical that employees feel a sense of belonging and are comfortable enough to speak their true thoughts.       

Ask HR if employee engagement surveys and exit interviews show that all workers feel included. If a particular employee demographic regularly has high turnover, that can be a red flag that they don't feel like they belong. 

Work with HR to figure out a plan to correct any issues, Ruggs said. "Ask: 'Where are we losing these people? And why?' It's not enough to do the work of discovery and not make the necessary changes."  

7. Make a donation or otherwise invest in a worthy cause.

Money, time and effort can all be put to good use. Suggest your company find a cause to support.  

Some options: Choose an organization that aligns with your company's stance on racial equality and donate funds. Allow employees to volunteer for a particular cause or group while on the clock. Find a Black-owned company or vendor to do business with.

Alternatively, look within to make progress in your own organization. Ask company leaders to identify specific social justice issues and create task forces aimed at advancing those causes in the workplace.

Natalie Kroc is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area.


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