Originally published as a Roanoke Times Opinion Letter.
The killing of George Floyd changed our nation overnight. The killing and subsequent protests coalesced with COVID-19 and the highest rate of unemployment since the Great Depression to create a paradigm shift for all.If it happens in life, it happens in your workplace and business leaders should take notice. With 24/7 coverage of these events, even if you have not overheard water-cooler conversations about the riots or seen employees take to Twitter and Facebook to denounce the killing or the resulting chaos, it is occurring. Everyone has an opinion about what happened, what should have happened, and what is happening now. As Americans become more polarized, your workforce does too.
So what do you do? Let’s look at a few ways to lead the conversation for your workforce.
Don’t let silence be your statement.
It is impossible to ignore this dialogue and what it means. Staying silent during a time like this may give a negative impression of you and your workplace. You do not want employees or the public to assume you do not care about a national concern that has people just as fearful and opinionated as the COVID-19 pandemic. It is our recommendation that you not just take a position, but do more. Make a commitment to your employees and workplace it will be as open, inclusive, and as safe as possible for everyone who works there. This is not about being “politically correct”—a phrase that now embodies a negative connotation—this is about being CORRECT.
We advocate for employers to develop diversity and inclusion statements, committees, and programs. While this may seem like an unfortunate time to do so, you may have to bring your commitment back to the basics. You can’t value diversity until you value people at the most basic level.
Empathize with your employees.
Apple CEO Tim Cook sent a memo to employees that discussed the company’s commitment to use its technology to change the world for the better in light of racial injustice, but did more. Cook recognized in writing the pain some of his employees are feeling: “To our colleagues in the Black community — we see you. You matter, your lives matter, and you are valued here at Apple.” Apple offered an Employee Assistance Program to all those who are struggling in this tragic time. Apple did not wait to get into the debate about “all lives matter,” as we all know they do. Instead, Apple jumped to the issue at hand – a significant subject that had to be addressed directly, immediately, and with certainty.
Have an effective conversation and train your workforce.
Employers are in a unique position of effecting change and steering the conversation—they have the “eyes, ears, and hearts” of America’s workforce, and each of their employees has a voice. To be clear, employers need not take on the burden of changing the views of individuals. Instead, they should set a tone of respect and inclusion that transcends the basic workplace issues employers normally address.
Peloton, an at-home fitness platform, emphasized its ongoing commitment to “creating an anti-racism plan” stating that “Peloton stands for inclusion, love, acceptance, and support.” The company also made a major contribution to the NAACP’s Legal Defense and education Fund. Peloton did it right. They stated what they stood for, made a commitment, and then put the plan into action through their donation.
Why revert, like Peloton, to “anti-racism” versus “diversity and inclusion?” Perhaps because we must. Anti-racism awareness does not always precede diversity and inclusion. However, merely having or committing to diversity and inclusion may not address racism or deeply held thoughts.
Many companies have put a stake in the ground, and in the coming days, others will follow. In caring for the lives of your employees, not only will you have done the right thing, you will also create a bond at work that has a lasting benefit to your business.
Now is the time to create a strong future. Employers should take this conversation from a political “hot potato” and turn it into an effective training tool and conversation. Make your commitment, train your workforce on issues of harassment, discrimination, diversity, and implicit bias, and develop a plan for your workforce to come together. People want to work for businesses that value and include them.