Don't be silent

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George Floyd’s senseless death on Memorial Day has caused many people of all races to find their voices. Protests are happening around the United States in communities of all sizes. While most of these happen at nights and on weekends, they impact normal work days, as well, as we work with people who are distracted and may be emotionally and perhaps physically empty.

While colleagues of all backgrounds are impacted, as a manager have you reached out to your black colleagues to see how they are doing? They are certainly the center of attention right now. Do you recognize how your black colleagues are being treated on a daily basis? Are you intentionally holding conversations about racial biases in the workplace with your coworkers?

What are your African American colleagues feeling right now? Do you know? Have you asked? If so, good for you! Only by asking will most people share. And if you haven’t asked, why haven’t you? Do you ascribe to the mindset of “if I don’t acknowledge it, it’s not happening?” The frustration and weariness among our black colleagues is real. If you don’t know that, it’s because you just aren’t paying attention. As a manager and leader, your job is to serve and support each of your subordinates, not just the ones who share your same ethnicity.

If you have colleagues who are struggling, look for ways to help them. Several of my black friends have shared that having someone acknowledge that they matter means a lot. While you may not be a touchy-feely type who is comfortable with asking about feelings, you can certainly tell someone that they matter to you. Many of us just don’t know how to help, so asking our black colleagues how we can support them is a start.

Most organizations today tout their diversity and inclusion efforts. Research shows that more diverse teams within organizations perform more effectively and are more productive than those comprising people with few diverse characteristics. But are you checking to see how those diverse folks are doing in the workplace daily? Just because you hired a black person doesn’t mean they are being included as an equal.

A black friend of mine recently shared that most of the time racist actions and comments are not overt in her workplace; it’s the subtle things people do and say. Do you see and hear them as a manager? I would challenge you to be intentional in your watching and listening. Ask your black staff members. They can probably give you countless examples. They may help you identify who to intentionally watch. And when you hear one of these verbal insults, speak up. Otherwise, you become complicit.

Additionally, right now you might need to understand that your employees who are participating in protests or are scared, need some grace. This is an emotional time for many, and, if they are also protesting, physically demanding, too. Does that report really need to be in this week, or can it be turned in early next week?

Each of us, no matter our background, has a set of implicit biases. Your biases typically are grounded in how you grew up. If you grew up, for example, in a home where you were taught to respect and love all people, your biases are quite different from a person who was taught that only white men should have a voice in the world. I’m fortunate that I was raised in the former type of family and it’s hard for me to understand the latter point of view. None of us got to choose our gender or skin color before we were born; I just came into this world as a white female. So my biases are based on that, coupled with my upbringing. Only by being aware that I am biased can I have any hope to change.

Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” I would encourage you to not be neutral now. Speak up. Check on your black colleagues and assure them that they matter. It’s your responsibility as a manager and as a human being.

Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.

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