Make sure Black History Month embeds meaningful change

TLNT kicked off February’s Black History Month with an exclusive interview about why some think diversity should actually be considered a ‘change management’ activity.

But with February now drawing to a close, we thought it was appropriate to consider whether this important awareness months creates any long-lasting impact.

It’s why we commissioned Jenny Garrett, author of ‘Equality vs Equity: Tackling Issues of Race in the Workplace’, to give her verdict on what employers need to do to make sure Black History Month doesn’t become another one of those short-term focus months that soon gets forgotten about.

Here’s what she has to say:

Black history month is a great time to remember the history of black people and celebrate black joy and black excellence.

But all too often, the euphoria of the month quickly disappears, and nothing truly changes.

The fact is, most organizations have a long way to go before they can truly say they are more inclusive and they can truly ensure all staff feel that they belong and have an equity of outcomes.

I’m not doubting there is widespread good intent.

Motivation to make change is present in many organizations. But knowledge around what to do and how to make long-lasting changes – rather than short-term initiatives that don’t stick – often isn’t there.

The key is moving beyond sharing food & drink and appreciating African and Caribbean music to understanding and giving black people what they need to achieve equal outcomes in the workplace. In other words, HRDs need to consider systems that disadvantage black people, and then seek to overcome them.

To do so we need to take an individual approach, to lead, share power and focus on outcomes.

This can be done under three broad banners:

1) Recruit differently

Widen the gate, rather than lower the bar.

Research shows that black people must prove themselves over and over again, and need to have a track record of performance, whereas their white counterparts are more likely to be recruited on their potential.

Being aware of this bias alone can help you make different recruiting decisions. But if you are truly committed to having a diverse workforce, then you may have to expand and innovate the way you recruit too.

Perhaps you need to begin to train in-house and develop your pipeline of talent when previously you have always recruited experienced talent directly.

Or maybe you begin to recognize the transferable skills which correlate with candidates that will be predisposed to being successful in the role, or you allow for remote roles which mean that you have a wider geographic reach of talent.

Recruiting in the way that you’ve always done won’t deliver different results.

2) Lead differently

Curiosity is key, so become curious about what is getting in the way of your black colleague’s success.

Find those who disagree with you and listen to them. Their perspective and different lived experience can open a whole new understanding for you.

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Own your power and use it positively with humility. You could do this by alternating the chairing of a meeting to share power, or you could amplify a black colleague’s useful idea in a meeting that would have been lost without your endorsement.

You can also sponsor a black colleague. According to research from Payscale.com black women with a sponsor earn 5% more than those without one, this could really help to close the ethnicity pay gap. Research tells us that 59% of black women have never had an informal interaction with a senior leader at their company and we know that sponsorship relationships come from these informal conversations.

What else? Here’s some of my recommendations:

  • Develop racial fluency: This is the fluency with which all staff can talk about race and ethnicity. Something that’s worth noting is that some black staff may be developing their own racial fluency too. They may not be used to discussing race and ethnicity at work and may not have discussed it much in other spaces either. They may be developing their thoughts and feelings about race and ethnicity in conjunction with their white counterparts.
  • Educate yourself: Notice and ‘call in’ microaggressions that exclude your Black colleagues. Microaggressions are statements, actions, or incidents regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalised group such as Black people.

HRDs can look like the 4D’s below:

  • The double takes: Two colleagues walk into a meeting, and it is automatically assumed that the white colleague is more senior, and the colleague from the global majority must correct them.
  • The doubting of competency: Questioning where black colleagues’ education took place as their level of intelligence surpasses others’ biased expectations of them. ‘You’re really intelligent aren’t you, what university/school did you attend, you’re so articulate?’
  • The dismissals of the persons lived experience: The ‘I don’t see color’ so the black staff member can’t then talk about their experience of being a black person
  • The domain that the black colleagues find themselves in: Imagine a black person arriving at your organization for a job interview and seeing that all previous post holders had been white men via photos on the wall. It tells them indirectly that their face is unlikely to fit.

3) Promote Differently

Increase your awareness of biases that you hold, such as affinity bias, promoting in your own image; prove-it-again bias; asking your black colleagues to prove themselves over and above what you would ask of their white counterparts; and tightrope bias – where only a very narrow set of behaviors are accepted from them.

Then, take actions to overcome them.

For example, in a meeting about promotions, you could call it out if you believe that prove-it-again bias is at play and advocate for that colleague’s promotion.

Also recognize that an intersectional approach is crucial.

It’s fantastic news if you have several black staff in senior roles, because representation matters and this will send a positive message to colleagues that there is not a glass ceiling in your organization.

But note the intersections with gender, disability, sexual orientation, education etc. It’s easy, as Professor Kimberle Crenshaw says, ‘for the minorities within minorities to fall through the cracks.’

Lastly, to be truly inclusive, we need to recognize that for everyone to win, no one has to lose.

That’s the culture that moves the dial!

Jenny Garrett, OBE, is an award-winning career coach, leadership trainer, speaker & author of Equality vs Equity: Tackling Issues of Race in the Workplace.

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