The days since George Floyd’s murder on 25th May by a policeman in the United States have gone by in a flash.
His senseless killing captured on video exposed the reality of racial injustice to a global audience, and has forced us all as individuals, communities and countries to examine our bias and confront our complacency.
People were shocked and appalled. But organisations and some public figures were tentative in their initial reactions.
That soon changed and slowly businesses started to declare their abhorrence of racism and support for Black employees, customers and the community as a whole.
From multinationals like Apple, Nike, adidas, Visa and MasterCard, to organisations in the arts like the Barbican and Shakespeare’s Globe, and fashion publications like Vogue and Vanity Fair, businesses of all sizes and in various sectors have spoken out.
The overwhelming show of support culminated in #BlackoutTuesday on 2nd June, where people refrained from posting anything other than a black square on their social media accounts.
As a Black woman while I think it has taken far too long for racism and racial injustice to capture the attention of the general public, the universal condemnation of Mr. Floyd’s murder and subsequent declarations of allyship are heartening.
However, it’s important that the support was not just a performance that occurred on social media.
It’s crucial that tackling racism does not fall off the agenda once the news cycle moves on, and that all the declarations of allyship and support actually translate from the intangible into catalysts for real, practical change.
So, if your organisation really wants to ally with Black people, here is some food for thought.
The importance of money and economic power cannot be overemphasised. In the here and now, an income helps pay for life’s necessities. In the medium to long-term it allows us to make choices, many of which can have lifelong implications.
Internships & Recruitment
As income and subsequently economic power stem from jobs and careers, the first step is to examine your hiring practices and how opportunities are afforded to people. Is this done equitably?
For example, internships often appear to be the preserve of the privileged. And they are – because they are mainly unpaid.
Question: Who can afford to take up an unpaid summer internship at a law firm?
Answer: Young people whose parents are well off. Who, in reality, don’t need the leg-up that an internship provides anyway.
Another example: What happens when your recruiting partners and HR department come across a name they are culturally unfamiliar with? Is that CV automatically discarded? Are you more likely to invite a “Sarah” or “Andrew” in for an interview, and not bother with an “Adanna” or a “Kweku”?
Do you only hire people from your alma mater or certain schools?
Also, how do people hear about vacancies? Where are they advertised? Is information about vacancies made available to a wide-ranging audience, or does it stay privy to subscribers to the Financial Times and The Economist only?
Not that there is anything wrong with these publications, but advertising in them alone facilitates and entrenches the exclusion of certain demographics.
Then take a look at your teams. How are they constituted; what is the make up?
As you seek to support Black professionals it is important to make sure they are in the room and feel confident that they can speak, and have their voices heard when they do.
And once they are in your organisation there must be a progression route that is clear and transparent, not one that is opaque and dependent on whether they go for drinks after work. Review the career paths in your organisation, which open the doors to economic power.
Suppliers & Vendors
Another useful exercise is to review who you give your business to. Which suppliers and vendors do you work with? Whose products do you sell and showcase to your audience?
Create A Culture and Environment that Is Safe, Nurturing and Enabling
The culture in an organisation is often taken for granted.
We assume it just happens, but in truth it is a function of what is we create or allow.
From the perspective of a Black professional in the United Kingdom, my experience has been that racism is never overt. However, it can be subtle, insidious, carefully planned and executed, to debilitating effect.
It is not uncommon for people who do not “fit in” to be managed out of organisations. While nothing is ever explicitly expressed, things can be made so unbearable for the individual that they resign out of frustration or are asked to leave after a campaign that portrays them as incompetent.
At first glance, this scenario may seem like an exaggeration. But it is more common than you realise, and often thrives in toxic environments created or allowed by Senior Management.
Bringing Black professionals through the doors of your organisation is not the end of your obligations. The work to ensure a positive and enabling culture and working environment is continuous and must be prioritised at the highest levels.
Provide a Platform
Every organisation has a platform and uses it every time it organises or participates in industry conferences, events, and panel discussions.
It is worth considering the following: Who do you invite onstage to speak at your events? Who participates in the panel discussions you organise? If you have a podcast, what is the demographic of the guests you choose to interview and showcase? And, which members of your team do you send to represent your organisation at conferences?
Another thing that is common is that once a Black man or woman is located, he or she can often become the “go-to” expert from a diverse background who is always given a platform. It makes life easier, but having one person who is always invited does not do much for diversity.
Apart from the fact that it prevents others having access to opportunities, it is important to remember that there is not one homogenous Black view of the world. We vote Labour and Conservative, voted both to leave and remain in the European Union, are vegan and meat eaters, are students, employees, business owners, currently unemployed, homeowners, tenants and everything in between. There are a myriad of perspectives and opinions which you cannot access if you only give a platform to one “go-to” person.
So, challenge your events and production teams, your researchers to look further afield. Insist that they provide you with a different list of names the next time you want an expert, speaker, panellist, or podcast guest.
Leadership & Decision Making
It is one thing to have Black men and women in your organisation and have their voices in the room.
It is also imperative that some of those voices are empowered and have the ability to influence and effect change from positions of seniority, so they have the authority and freedom to propose and chart a different course in the organisation if need be.
This is because it is easy to overrule junior members of staff, even middle management. Their input and views can easily be discounted.
But making sure Black men and women have the ability to influence, shape and make key decisions makes it hard to ignore their input and perspectives. Tackling that power dynamic and ensuring there is a better balance means usual viewpoints can be challenged by someone who is less concerned about the consequences of speaking up or having a different view.
Look at your Senior Management or Leadership teams. Who is in them, and what can you do to address any imbalance that exists?
Are you actively working to develop and coach the next generation of Black men and women to step into positions of leadership?
I cannot pretend that these alone will resolve all race-related issues in businesses and organisations, but if acted upon they are practical steps in the right direction which will go a long way to making a significant difference.
It is important that this moment in time acts as a trigger for real and lasting change, and does not end up just being a hashtag. But that will not happen on its own; action is required now.
So, I challenge you not just to say that Black lives matter.
Go further and put your money where your mouth is. Because your actions going forward – as a leader, as a business or organisation – will speak much louder than your words.