How workplaces can serve as allies to eradicate racial injustice

June 6, 2020

In a letter from the jail in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

While we know that acts of bias and racism are deeply rooted in our communities, recent events, including the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis during an arrest, among others, have deepened the wounds of an already disheartening daily realization of the injustice suffered by black Americans.

Employers do not operate in a silo away from the clear pain and injustice being experienced daily by members of our community. They need to stand up and acknowledge, condemn and show strength, and demonstrate they are allies with their employees in an effort to build a bridge and over time effect positive change.

Aaron Montgomery, a Richmond-based entrepreneur and adviser with degrees from Harvard University, said he’s had CEOs reaching out to ask what they can do to support employees and relate to their teams. CEOs and leaders want employees to know that leadership hears them.

First, Montgomery said, reaching out is an important step. He said he is grateful when others reach out because, he said, “At least this is the start of a conversation that is necessary.”

A lot of black men didn’t have allies in corporate America or traditional roles, he said, when he began his career, and it made the work that much more exhausting.

Montgomery cautions that we must start the conversation authentically. “If you can’t start that conversation with a focus on that person and where they are with empathy and with love and with concern — if you are not ready to do that, then it’s best to not have the conversation at all.”

Montgomery further cautions that if the conversation is “going to be another jump-off point for a policy debate or a question about what should you do when you interact with the police or an anthropological study of rioting versus other forms of protest, or an ethical debate — no one is in the mood for that — that’s not empathy. That’s your own curiosity.”

Considering empathy, Montgomery suggests “empathy means recognizing to black employees — this must be hard — I see you and I hear you and I’m here for you if you want to talk.”

William Thorpe served for decades as the director of the Richmond district office of the federal Contract Compliance Programs, which is charged with civil rights enforcement. Now retired, Thorpe agrees with Montgomery in his approach.

“It’s hard to believe that in 2020 we are still talking about and experiencing racism in America,” Thorpe said. “Employers need to train their managers in equal opportunity and how to handle situations of discrimination in the workforce. Managers must be thoroughly trained in weeding out employees who discriminate against anyone in the workforce.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently said it is suing a New York-based construction company for using racial slurs, comments and threatening black employees with nooses.

Employers also have asked how to show support for black employees when they need to hold a black employee accountable for work performance. They fear it will come across as racism.

Thorpe said employers should make sure their policies on performance and discipline are being followed. Companies need strong and updated policies on various employment procedures.

When holding all employees accountable, businesses need to evaluate if there is unconscious or conscious bias influencing employment decisions and, after doing so, should not avoid being fair and consistent to all employees.

Now is the time to speak up and teach about bias. Listen to the needs of your employees. Eliminate even a whiff of anti-black rhetoric or conduct.

Every employer, manager and colleague plays a key role in supporting and standing as an ally to black employees, including their families, their friends and our community.