Black at Work, Too: What 2020 Taught Us About the Black Experience in the Workplace & What You Can Do – Guest Blogger Brienna LaCoste

Posted by Brienna LaCoste on Fri, Feb 26, 2021

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It’s 2021, and we’ve made it through Black History Month, but we’re still joyriding the wave of #BlackExcellence, while persevering through miserably predictable adversity and trauma. I’d say, hallowed by some ancestral forces who continue to restore fortitude and resilience.

During this period each year, we take (perhaps a little more) time to celebrate the achievements of people of African descent and the role they have played in American history and culture despite odds of tireless oppression. But of course, Black History Month presents far more. In its evolution, we’ve continued to stretch and deepen the opportunities that the month provides to reflect – not only on the past, but the present and future of the global Black community. Respectively, this moment plays a key role in every organization – or at least it should. Why? Because the Black experience is not contained. And although this reality still holds true for most, Blackness is not a switch that should have to turn off and on between work and home. No matter what you do, being who you are is categorically a part of a healthy and functional day. (And life, for that matter.) So yes – employees are Black at work, too; and 2020 finally showed us that their experiences and realities outside of the office feed into how they’re able to show up – including mental availability, which may affect productivity or performance.

Let’s take a look at lessons learned, continued challenges and the path forward for leaders that are looking to better understand this dynamic, grow their teams’ cultural competency and respond to the global business needs of increased Black talent and other diversity.

2020 – A Memorable Year, For One Reason or Another

At its best, 2020 was a learning lesson for all. It was a year of contemplation, discovery, understanding, and there were a few key events that impacted the Black experience. Quite notably, George Floyd was murdered on camera by a police officer in Minnesota among bystanders pleading and advocating for his life. While laced with the risk of vicarious PTSD for many, this was a catalyst for another surge in the Black Lives Matter movement – and this time, it hit differently. The cause resonated more widely than ever before. Floyd’s killing became a hallmark illustration strengthening calls for social justice in this new decade. Similarly, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others who didn’t make national news have underpinned the 2020 movement resurgence.

In addition, the Covid-19 crisis continues to disproportionately affect the Black community. USA Today recently reported that the U.S. lost a whole year of life expectancy – and for Black people, it's nearly three times worse. All the while, Black healthcare workers are also bearing double burdens in hospitals across the country – battling workplace slights from colleagues questioning qualifications and white patients baselessly requesting non-Black practitioners.

Real-life Experiences and Reflections

In evaluating the rollercoaster ride of 2020, I decided to poll a diverse group of Black professionals, ranging in age, industry, and background to get a sense of what they’d experienced in the workplace (or virtual workplace). Frankly, the responses triggered the severe emotional distress that many have suffered. Importantly though, they revealed an acute demand for better internal communications as leaders continue to navigate critical conversations and unforeseen change within organizations as well as the hard work that needs to be done with DE&I.

Here’s what some Black professionals graciously disclosed:

As you can see, there’s much left to be said and subsequently done as we push through the grief of 2020 with maximum optimism in 2021. The impassioned responses I received underscore the need for richer conversations as well as a shift from analysis to action. (With receipts, please!)

Nevertheless, there is promise:

quotes-redWorking at large hospital, where about half of employees are Black, they did a really good job of being open about the injustices that transpired. I felt like everything that was going on in the world actually mattered to them, which meant I also mattered.
quotes-redAfter the events of George Floyd, my organization took a concerted effort to understand the Black experience both at home and at work. Not only were there conversations driven by the president, a white woman, but she also implored her staff to hold these critical conversations about race with their respective organizations.

Realizing the Need for Change

These challenges we’ve seen were only compounded by already-existing racism across all of our American institutions. Though in 2020, they led to revolutionary shifts in the approach many organizations have taken to address diversity, equity, and inclusion and/or social justice. Externally, we’ve seen big brands modify their longstanding identities, flip campaigns upside down and declare solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement – something that would’ve been unheard not long ago. But as the polling above shows us, real internal changes hold the magic key. They’re the starting point for organizations to walk the talk that we see on their websites, social channels and marketing campaigns that now have more Black and Brown faces. And that key unlocks unlimited opportunities for your organization to fit into the future of work.

Some organizations have begun to walk the talk in simple ways while growing in their DE&I journey and supporting Black employees, such as:

  1. Listening for comprehension to Black employees about their experiences – and not for reactive or immediate alliance
  2. Getting uncomfortable, but starting essential conversations about racism (within and outside of the organization)
  3. Taking a closer look at policies and practices to determine gaps in relation to protecting Black employees and creating safe spaces

But this scratches the surface. And no, it is not enough – not by any measure of accountability that we’re stacked up against when we talk about continuing to improve systems now so that future generations are better.

Further, it prompts a discussion about (Black) intersectionality and how multiple layers of individual and structural oppression affect how organizations need to approach efforts of DE&I and social justice.

So, What’s Next? Amplifying Black Voices and Improving Overall DE&I

Let’s be honest, once you’ve established a starting point for healing, changing, or recreating within your organization, that’s when the real work begins. For many, that work is currently underway after launching or reenergizing in 2020. But there’s still hesitation, a lack of knowledge and pushback from the change-adverse or non-believers. As a leader, start or continue by answering a few key questions:

  • Support for Black Employees
    • Have I reached out to my Black team members or colleagues to have a (potentially uncomfortable) conversation to understand issues they may be facing and how to properly support or become an ally?
    • Have I made an effort to self-educate about racism against the Black community and how it affects my respective team members?
    • Have I set up systems to help me assess continued support and opportunities for my Black team members?
    • Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
      • Why are diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts important to me as a human being?
      • How am I normalizing differences in my everyday work?
      • What commitment do I have (or am I advocating for within my organization) to invest resources in DE&I?

More? Yes (so much). But remember that the journey does not require haste as much as it does clarity of intention for long-term impact. Keep moving and know that each piece gets you further along.

So, what lessons about the Black experience in the workplace have you learned since 2020? How will you continue to self-educate and grow cultural competency for yourself and within your organization?

Brienna LaCoste

About Brienna

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Brienna is a Senior Account Manager and Senior thoughtpartner at The Grossman Group. She brings more than six years of experience in public relations and multicultural marketing communications, including DE&I strategy for local, US-based and global organizations. She has worked with leaders across a variety of industries, including Dow Chemical, American Honda, Nielsen Global Media, AT&T, NBA, SC Johnson, Novartis Gene Therapies, and Tecomet, among others. She has a steady focus on driving key conversations for diverse audiences and helping to build authentic relationships for organizations from the inside-out. Connect with and learn more about Brienna here.

It’s a defining moment for companies to examine the actions and commitments that are needed to address diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. With societal issues center stage, companies need to reflect on their culture – and reset if necessary. Click below to get 3 things your organization can do today to drive diversity, equity & inclusion.

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Tags: Guest Bloggers, Diversity & Inclusion