Last February, I wrote a newsletter on Leading Below the Surface during Black History Month that addressed the question:
Have things truly gotten better for Black employees?
One year later, the question is still highly relevant. 2022 saw some major wins and strides for Black employees and leaders, but below the surface, there is still a lot of stasis. Black employees continue to confront the same struggles in the workplace. Now is a good time to look holistically at how things have shifted for Black folks in the workplace – and an opportunity to reflect on how we might do better moving forward.
Before we jump into the nitty-gritty, I feel called to acknowledge some major wins from the past year: the appointment of Harvard University’s first Black female president, Claudine Gay, and a record number of Black CEOs appointed to the Fortune 500 list. Researchers from the University of Georgia and Stevens Institute of Technology also found in a recent study that when companies appoint Black CEOs, their market capitalizations jump by 3.1% within three days of the announcement. These wins are great – it makes a big difference to see more Black people in leadership positions and to have the research show that Black leaders make a positive impact on companies. But it is important to acknowledge that although these wins look really good from the outside, they don’t tell us much about what’s truly going on below the surface in American work culture.
Through our work at Change Coaches, we’re hearing a different story, one that poses some real concerns about how much effort leaders are putting in to make sure their Black colleagues can thrive in the workplace. We conducted dozens of listening sessions over the past year and continue to hear the same issues pop up for Black employees, and to us, none of these issues are new or surprising. These are the areas that leaders need to make a commitment to changing within their workplaces and company cultures:
A quick reminder – microaggressions are behaviors that communicate negative slights or insults towards historically marginalized groups. These behaviors might be intentional, or completely accidental and motivated by internalized bias. Whether intentional or unintentional, microaggressions make the workplace less psychologically safe for Black employees.
Just 3% of Black professionals feel ready to return to in-person work as compared to 21% of their white peers. One of the reasons for this is that remote work has been a buffer against microaggressions. Black employees often experience “competency microaggressions” — behaviors that come out of low expectations of Black employees or the belief that they are somehow less qualified (when, in fact, the opposite is usually true). Competency microaggressions are so deeply engrained that only 29% of people who experience them actually report them, but they negatively impact Black employees’ sense of belonging and psychological safety.
Which brings me to my next observation…
Black leaders feel undermined in the workplace
Something we hear over and over again in our listening sessions (and in my executive coaching sessions) is that Black leaders constantly have to deal with white employees who go around or undermine them. This is backed up by the research on how competency microaggressions negatively impact the productivity of teams: when employees don’t defer to the team leader, group cooperation suffers. Black leaders are put in a double-bind: to either ignore the behavior in favor of showing emotional restraint and then having to deal with the fallout, or to address the behavior and potentially face backlash. I wrote a newsletter last fall addressing how I handled some aggressive comments after a recent speaking gig, where I was put in a similar double-bind and had to figure out how to address it. Black leaders are performing more emotional labor and working twice as hard — it’s no wonder only 3% want to return to in-person work.
Companies need to go below the surface when confronting triggering issues like violence
It is already painful to hear about hate crimes, police brutality, and other racially-motivated violence but made even worse by the 24-hour news cycle and relentlessness of social media. Even in the workplace, it can be difficult to escape.
The recent news about Tyre Nichols prompted me to reflect that, while it might feel like the “right” thing to do to routinely check in with your Black colleagues after an event like this, offering surface-level condolences can feel performative and forced. It is important to stay below the surface, listen, give employees grace, and acknowledge that everyone grieves in a different way. This also goes for dealing with violence that isn’t directly racially related, but that can also be triggering for Black employees, like school shootings.
I urge leaders to not just celebrate Black History Month at the surface level – it can be a rich opportunity to truly reflect and consider how to do better by our Black colleagues and employees all year round. The insights and research are there to learn from and now is the time to commit to leading below the surface and making companies and workplaces psychologically safe places. Black employees and leaders should feel a sense of belonging all the months of the year – not just in February.
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