Supporting Black Lives Matter in the workplace

Written by
Sheree Atcheson, Peakon

13 Oct 2020

13 Oct 2020 • by Sheree Atcheson, Peakon

As October marks Black History Month, Sheree Atcheson of Peakon outlines some practical steps that leaders can take to show support for Black Lives Matter in the workplace.

The Black Lives Matter movement has shone a spotlight on racism. It has forced us all – across countries and cultures, especially those who have had the privilege to disengage previously – to acknowledge its existence. In workplaces, diversity has been on boardroom agendas for some time, but Black Lives Matter has catapulted the related issue of anti-Black racism right to the top. Business leaders and their employees can no longer ignore insidious structural racism, or their role in defeating it.

It’s positive to see, in the wake of the global uprisings, that many employers now seem eager to address workplace racism, nurture more equitable workplaces, and support employees in becoming better allies to their Black colleagues. 

Here are some good starting points: 

1. Acknowledge the problem 

Most white HR professionals don’t believe racial discrimination exists at their workplace, according to a recent survey. While some may be wilfully sticking their heads in the sand, most simply do not have the data they need to understand the scope of the issue. HR leaders need to use the tools at their disposal to gain a full, quantitative understanding of just how entrenched racism is in their organisation. They need to look at ethnicity in relation to pay and promotion to see if there’s a problem. And then dig deeper to see the effects of intersectionality. There could be a bigger problem when individuals are marginalised on more than one count. 

Once HR leaders have a data-based understanding of the problem, they can address it. While acknowledging racism in the workplace by non-Black business leaders can be uncomfortable, this is greatly outweighed by the lifetime of structural racism Black employees have experienced. Leaders must be honest about what’s occurring. 

2. Educate employees on racism

Employers shouldn’t assume that every employee has the same baseline understanding of racism. It sounds cliched, but without walking in someone’s shoes, you can’t understand how they feel. Employers have a responsibility to help employees understand the unique challenges faced by Black people inside and outside of the workplace, and how structural racism has been embedded in our society. Organisations must make education on this mandatory for all employees to create a culture of compassion and understanding.

But education cannot be a ‘one and done’ activity. Employers can’t expect employees to become actively anti-racist after one session on the history of racism, for example. Education must be ongoing. We are always learning and growing, and leaders must recognise that racism is not something employees will understand overnight.

3. Update organisational code of conduct and values

A code of conduct makes it very clear what is unacceptable in the workplace. If an organisational code of conduct doesn’t currently include a section on racism and colourism, this needs to be rectified and then shared with all employees. Updates to company codes and values should be transparent and concise to make it clear what the business will not tolerate, and the grievance process to follow if someone fails to adhere to this. 

Importantly, grievance processes must work for all involved, creating a safe, transparent and clean-cut way for people to raise issues and have them investigated. There should be face-to-face and anonymous ways for employees to do this. There must be appropriate training and selection on who hears grievances and decides outcomes – this cannot be determined simply by someone’s level.

Company values should also be updated to reflect the beliefs and attitudes of all employees. If diversity, equity and inclusion are going to be priorities for a business, every employee should feel united in standing behind the company values. Businesses, however, must not update their values to fly the flag of anti-racism if they are not taking the practical steps to embed this across the business.

4. Building a more equitable future

Few would call 2020 a great year – but if one positive thing has emerged from it, it’s the fresh focus being placed on anti-Black racism and the need to eliminate it.

By following these steps, business leaders can further our progress towards this. But they must continue walking the walk. If we want to work toward an equitable future, every organisation needs to be actively anti-racist.


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