What can companies say and do to lessen the hurt, fear, anger and hopelessness that their black employees are feeling at this painful moment in American history? And more importantly, what can they do to ensure that more than just lip service will be paid to fighting racism?
If executives are not asking these important questions after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd for almost nine minutes, they need to be.
In response to Floyd’s death, protests against police abuse have taken to the streets in more than 140 U.S. cities, attended by people of all colors. The officer who kneeled on Floyd, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second-degree murder and three other officers have been charged with counts of aiding and abetting second-degree murder.
To do their part, corporations need to listen to employees, take a hard look at their own practices and show their commitment to diversity is more than skin deep. In a video shared with Page members, new chair Charlene Wheeless, former principal VP and manager of corporate affairs at Bechtel, implored chief communications officers and other C-suite leaders to help their workforces.
“When people are this frightened, bringing their authentic self to work, being productive and pretending like everything is OK are the last things on their minds,” she said, in the video. “When you look like me and my brown and black brothers and sisters, the only thing on your mind is will you be allowed to live? When you walk out the door each day, will you return and will you be the same as when you left? That is the burden we carry every day.”
Margenett Moore-Roberts, chief diversity and inclusion officer at IPG’s Constituency Management Group, says employers have a responsibility to empower staff. CMG houses Interpublic Group’s specialty marketing agencies, including PR firms Weber Shandwick and Golin.
“There used to be this point of view that you leave your personal life and personal feelings outside of work and focus on work within work. But in 2016 and 2017, following a rash of deaths of black men at the hands of the police, we learned people really need to talk about these issues at work,” she says.
Black in-house and agency leaders share how companies can help to heal their workforces at this painful time and advise how executives can begin to break down systemic racism.
Recognize the moment
“We are in a disturbing trifecta – COVID-19, the economic downturn and blatant, horrific racism playing out before our eyes,” Wheeless says. “Employees are scared and they’ve all been affected by these current events disproportionately.”
In terms of getting sick from COVID-19, black Americans have been significantly overrepresented, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In New York City, the epicenter of the coronavirus, they are dying at twice the rate of whites. Black families are also being affected more by the economic fallout from the pandemic than others.
As if that wasn’t enough, racism was recently captured in all its ugliness on video — twice, on the same day. In another incident in Central Park, a white woman called police and claimed she was being threatened “by an African-American man.” In fact, he only asked that she leash her dog according to park rules.
“Unfortunately, we see the lives of African-Americans being thought of as less than other communities in this country on a pretty regular basis,” says Corey Ealons, partner at Vox Global and former White House communications aide in the Obama administration. “What makes this different is the video of George Floyd being killed at the hands of that white police officer. It is a very visible, in-your-face presentation of the abject pain the black community is suffering.”
Combined with other recent cases of police brutality and the COVID-19 statistics, “it’s almost like a house of horrors,” says Ealons. “It tells a story of where we are in America right now when it comes to race.”
Top communications executives applaud statements from companies that reflect an understanding of what needs to happen next. Ealons says an open letter from Minneapolis-based Boston Scientific CEO Mike Mahoney to the medical innovation company’s employees is among the best.
“We can only heal and grow better together by listening and learning, by having courageous conversations, and by cultivating a trusting environment where all people feel safe, comfortable and empowered,” it reads. “When we behave this way, we can set an example for all of our communities around the world. We need to do better — and we can.”
“Companies need to position themselves as doing more listening than talking right now. They need to provide an opportunity and space for employees to be heard by leadership as well as one another about the collective issues that define this moment,” says Ealons.
Michael Sneed, Johnson & Johnson’s EVP, global corporate affairs and CCO, says “companies need also to express their unequivocal support for their black employees and take time to reaffirm their company values to all of their employees.”
And then they need to listen.
“Hear what your black employees have to say and then commit to act on their most pressing needs,” he advises. “Second, companies need to understand that their non-black employees are looking for signals from leadership on how to respond. Give all employees an opportunity to be allies to stand together to fight racism and social injustice.”
Listening will help to inform what companies say to employees. The feedback will also guide external messages and actions to combat racism.
Neil Foote, president of the National Black Public Relations Society and founder of Foote Communications, advises corporate leaders to do a listening tour by bringing small groups of employees of every color together virtually.
“It shouldn’t be just one session, but over several weeks, and hearing from every division in the company,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be in the name of diversity and inclusion. It could be corporate culture and addressing tension and anxiety in your workforce, because there are a lot of sources of tension right now.”
CMG has provided guidance to diversity and inclusion leaders on how to start conversations with black employees, including by asking questions like, “What do you wish I understood about this? And how do you want to be supported?” By understanding how they want to be supported, CMG is creating effective programs for white employees to be allies and unite with their black colleagues, says Moore-Roberts.
“While a lot of our white employees felt the impact of this in some ways, they understood the impact to be different for their black colleagues, and many of them were asking, ‘What can we do?’” she says. “As a next step, we are really focused on circulating resources and making sure that white employees have the ability to educate themselves.”
“That is important,” she stresses. “You don’t want to create another burden on African-American employees, while they are dealing with the trauma themselves, to also have to educate their white colleagues.”
Resources for white employees include information on how to be a good ally.
“We already had ally training set up associated with Pride at the IPG level, but we’re now bringing a lot of that ally training into the individual offices across CMG,” adds Moore-Roberts. “If we can enable and activate our white employees to participate in this conversation and movement as well, then over the long-term there will be so many positive benefits.”
The issue goes well beyond putting out a statement or writing a check to an anti-racism organization. Corporations need to help employees with their physical and mental well-being and in the bigger fight against racism, they say.
For starters, Sneed adds that “companies need to use their power to advocate for policies in local, state and at the federal level that will better protect people of color and promote better education and understanding.”
“Next, employees are looking for specific actions: more education on the history of racism, and support for organizations committed to justice reform. And most importantly, organizations can look inward to see if they are doing all they can to promote diversity and inclusion within their own companies,” says Sneed. “Most have an opportunity to redouble their efforts in this area.”
CMG is offering black employees self-care support options, whether it be group or individual therapy, time off or empowering them to participate in protests.
“They have already had a disproportionate impact from the COVID-19 crisis, and then this happened, so it was one trauma added onto an existing trauma,” notes Moore-Roberts.
“[IPG is working on] a really strong plan that follows up all of this important discussion,” she adds. “In the past, we have seen this moment just go by. This is a big opportunity for leaders to create more trust with their diverse employees by taking action that lives on beyond this moment.”
CMG is also starting to have deep conversations about how institutional systems work to the advantage of some and harm to others. It is looking to take those lessons and challenge the company’s mission, purpose, values and especially how it operates.
“We want to figure out, are there inequities in the systems we use today?” says Moore-Roberts. “We know there are some. We just need to get surgical about where they are and how we address them.”
Claudine Moore, MD and founder of C. Moore Media and adjunct professor at New York University, agrees that companies should be addressing everyone in the workplace, including racist employees and even leaders.
“They have influence leading to negative practices in the workplace. A commitment to rooting out racism, including the strategies that will be undertaken, should be communicated to all employees. Racist staff should be effectively put on notice and a zero-tolerance policy not just in place but enforced,” she says.
“Collaboration is key, but there should be attention paid to not ‘othering’ black employees, a delicate balance but definitely achievable,” adds Moore. “The prism at which all organizations should approach this from is that this is not about black staff but about dismantling a system.”