What employers can do to support Black employees right now

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Around the country, Americans are demanding justice and change following the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police.

There has been a stream of corporate statements responding to the aftermath and speaking out against racial injustice, but an employer’s true dedication to equity will be shown through their active support of inclusion and diversity initiatives, says Lauren Aguilar, head of diversity and inclusion at Forshay, a human resources company based in Lafayette, California.

“You see a lot of companies really focused on the external, which is amazing, but it's not enough,” she says. ”What I'm seeing less of right now is leadership teams making a commitment to address issues of diversity and inclusion within the bounds of their own organization. This is such an important moment to step up and make that commitment, but only some companies are doing so.”

Between the coronavirus pandemic and the killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans during encounters with law enforcement, many Black employees are dealing with trauma, grief and mental health issues, which may impact work performance.

“The employees are suffering,” Aguilar says. “Black employees have real concerns for their personal safety, and their family’s safety, at this moment. Anxiety, grief, confusion, all these things are at the forefront of people's mind, and if an employer cares about their employees, then all of these things need to be addressed.”

Some employers are taking tangible steps — including paid time off (PTO) and donations to organizations fighting social injustice.

From speaking to practitioners, scientists and leaders of companies across the country, Aguilar said she has learned that urgency is the top issue.

“Responding quickly is really important, so right now as a leader, if you have not yet responded, do it today,” she says. “And the things that are needed first are along that basic level of mental health and wellness. It’s providing a therapist, counseling, grief and trauma support, and PTO, especially for Black employees. That first layer of taking care of employees is incredibly important.”

Last week, Austin Peay State University, a public university in Clarksville, Tennessee, hosted a virtual town hall with over 450 employees and students attending. The purpose was to create a forum for the university’s African American employees to share their experiences, and to discuss how to start a conversation about race relations, says Sheraine Gilliam-Holmes, chief HR officer at Austin Peay.

“That town hall sparked dialogue, connection and change,” she says. “Because after that, I can't tell you how many emails, phone calls and texts I received from my white counterparts that thanked me for having that conversation. They said they didn't really know what to say, and that they have now been given a chance to start the conversation.”

During the town hall, the university also informed employees on what mental health resources are available to them, including the Employee Assistance Program, a licenced therapist and other resources that address anxiety, depression and stress.

“As a Black employee, the town hall was my therapy, because I was being able to talk about this,” Gilliam-Holmes says. “The university allowing us to create a space to communicate how we were feeling, that in itself was our give-back to the Black community.”

A lot of companies are holding listening sessions, but if not managed correctly, they may end up backfiring, Aguilar says, adding that a defining factor for these meetings is who’s facilitating them and ensuring that person has credibility with the audience.

See also: Racial justice protests offer opportunity to change hiring practices

“When it's a person, from HR, or an executive or CEO, who does not have diversity inclusion expertise, that can derail it,” she says.

Hudson MX, an advertising software startup with dual headquarters in Atlanta and New York, is providing PTO specifically for employee civic engagement and matched donations to organizations fighting social injustice.

“Specific to employees, I think the most important thing we are doing is making sure that it's clear that Black Lives Matter, and that this is an environment where they should feel comfortable, welcome and respected,” says JT Batson, founder and CEO of Hudson MX. “It’s about making sure that our Black employees know that Hudson is a place for them, but also it's a place for us to be able to discuss what's going on, and specifically discuss racism in America.”

For companies committed to fight institutional racism and increase diversity, their strategies should be long-term and sustainable, Aguilar says. Strategies can include processes to remove bias and increase inclusion in hiring, management and promotions, or plans to amplify Black voices by seeking expertise and guidance from the Black community of scholars, scientists, activists and diversity practitioners.

“This is really a moment to harness the power of diversity inclusion and to think about the company as a microcosm for what's going on in the outside society,” Aguilar says. “Because things like structuralized racism, gender bias, gender identity bias, or disability bias do not end when you walk into the lobby of your corporation.”

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