An important conversation started in the summer of 2020. With an overwhelming percentage of our country still sheltering in place, working remotely as they tried to juggle personal and professional responsibilities, we watched in horror as a black man named George Floyd was murdered. The video of his final moments went viral, being played repeatedly on national TV and all media outlets. Hearts were broken, people were outraged, and the resulting reaction, which would become George Floyd’s legacy, grew in real time as protesters took to the streets. People across the country started asking questions and demanding answers.
It’s a shame that this incident was not unique. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and countless black, indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) were victims before George Floyd. But something about last summer felt different. The truth about the systematic deadly treatment of BIPOC Americans was exposed on a national stage.
And suddenly, employees working remotely from their kitchen tables or their home offices, felt more comfortable sharing how they were really feeling. Parents shared stories for the first time about conversations they have had to have with their young children about racism. My BIPOC colleagues—myself included—finally felt comfortable opening up about some of the grief they were carrying.
I am not invoking George Floyd or any fallen victim’s name to shock you. After 8 years working in Human Resources and over 20 in the technology industry, I understand how sensitive the topic of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) can be. I bring it up to invite you into the conversation. Because since last summer, the dialogue about BIPOC’s experience with racism and DE&I hasn’t stopped. It has escalated into the arena of daily recognition.
In fact, almost a year later, candidates and employees are regularly engaging in discussions about DE&I in a way I have never seen before. When I speak to talent inside of my company as well as my clients and candidates, I am hearing there is a movement that cannot be ignored. People want to know that they are working with and for people who care about the experiences of BIPOCs. And their engagement and their tenure with your company are riding on your response.
Create a Safe Space to Be Heard
The conversations that started last summer changed your BIPOC colleagues for the better. Now, we have the freedom to share our experiences and talk about DE&I in a way we couldn’t have a year ago. People are able to understand with deeper empathy, because they have seen firsthand the pain systemic racism brings. A year ago, many would have considered questions about diversity or race off-limits. Now, people feel more comfortable being their genuine, authentic selves at work.
Embrace the fact that your employees want to have these conversations and create safe, respectful spaces for these conversations to occur. These spaces can be Town Halls or Executive Office Hours or candid 1:1 discussions. Be authentic to your company’s norms but do make sure the invitation to talk is there. These conversations are happening, whether your company’s leadership is involved or not. So it’s best to tap into them.
Respond Authentically and Keep Responding
Companies need to host authentic conversations about race, reaching out to their diverse employees to understand what the needs really are for each company. Last summer inspired many employers to take a harder look at their DE&I strategies. That’s a good thing! You will need to map a thorough and scalable DE&I strategy to retain and grow your talent. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Your DE&I strategy cannot be successful without candid feedback from your employees and the full backing of your leadership team.
Companies need to show employees that they truly intend to embrace DE&I. This includes elevating your DE&I leaders to leadership levels where they can have a strategic, systemic impact. They MUST be taken seriously. They should be sitting at the C-Suite level, reporting to the highest level of each company. They should be on equal footing with senior leadership so that they can influence diversity and equity in the most meaningful ways possible.
And once you have a strategy and roadmap in place to address these issues, share updates regularly on how the work is going. Go overboard if you need to. This is not a one-time kickoff. Your employees need to hear constant messaging from senior leaders about the importance of diversity to keep the work going and the lines of communication open. Your employees need to know that this is top of mind to you. The most important thing you can do is let your employees know you care about the issues that are impacting them, and you’re interested in building a culture that includes all perspectives. As Stacey Abrams said in her book Lead From the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change, “Our priorities should ideally engage heart and head.”
The consequence of not taking DE&I seriously? Your company could be facing an exodus. There are companies in the market doing the hard work to address and embrace DE&I in a meaningful and transparent way. Candidates share their experiences and know which companies are truly walking the walk.
I don’t say this to intimidate. Your BIPOC colleagues don’t want you to be intimidated by them or their needs. They want to know you hear them and care.
This can be the beginning of a wonderful, exciting journey. As a BIPOC, I feel hopeful and ready for a change. And for the first time, people are expecting their employer to come along on this journey with them. Now is a time to ask and have the conversations, and then keep the conversations going—one conversation at a time. The pandemic has turned the world upside down anyway. As we rebuild our workplace norms, why not put DE&I front and center?