How Organizations Can Support Employees During Social Justice Movements
The year 2021 (and 2020 especially) has been fraught with examples of blatant structural inequities and systemic racism. Individuals and organizations alike have been forced to contemplate and reflect on those injustices that have been so clearly illuminated. If there has ever been a time to call on your inner activist, the time is now.
Amid an unprecedented pandemic, anti-Asian racism and the worldwide outrage from the highly publicized deaths of African Americans at the hands of police, students, and employees in all industries are now actively organizing around issues of racial equity and demanding employers respond. Organizations of all kinds have scrambled to comply, separate themselves from this injustice and stand in solidarity with what is right. They have raced to write statements, asked for a moment of silence, taken a knee, posted disgust on social media, and engaged in antiracism conversations.
But are these organizations really committed? Or are all of these actions just performative allyship? Are these steps taken just so they look good while avoiding the hard work of more significant institutional changes required to address organizational marginalization and exclusion?
To preserve employee well-being in times of political and social disruption, manage negative emotions, establish appropriate political expression policies and create safe spaces for dialogue.
The common theme in these disruptions is that they relate to deeply held and potentially divisive personal beliefs. But organizational leaders can’t afford to be timid when issues might be contentious. In fact, when the potential for tension among co-workers is high, it’s even more important to be proactive, candid, and authentic. Here are some impactful ways that organizations can start having those difficult conversations surrounding racism and inequity and to better support social justice issues in the workplace:
1. Talk with your employees and, more importantly, listen
The most important first step in tackling social justice issues is to create a safe and inclusive space for employees to express how they feel. The simple act of asking someone if they are okay, or what changes they would like to see in the workplace, could be the defining moment that opens the eyes of the leaders within the organization to things that need improvement. Listening is crucial to navigating crisis situations and developing empathetic leadership. By listening to your employees, leaders in an organization can get a sense of the concrete actions they can take to address inequality in the workplace. Also, instead of assuming you know what works for your employees, ask them what they need! You can use surveys, focus groups, empathy mapping, shadowing, and interviews – whatever you need to develop a clear picture of what your employees need to be successful in your organization.
2. Demonstrate an active commitment to your employees
Put resources towards efforts that actually enhance the lives of BIPOC staff and BIPOC communities. Invest in structural changes that will genuinely benefit communities of color. For example, you can commit to a strategic planning process that centers on anti-racism; hire facilitators that specialize in racial equity and racial healing; or design long-term programs to develop and retain your BIPOC talent. Set significant resources aside for training that effectively teaches people of all races and genders how to combat racist behavior, including unconscious bias and microaggressions.
3. Continue the conversation even after the trend ends
In an era where authenticity is everything (especially for Gen-Z & Millennials), it takes more than a public statement to take a stand on social justice. If your company is committed to having these honest conversations and supporting employees during social justice movements, you need to produce a call to action and communicate your action plan to employees. Yes, words matter. Money and financial commitments also matter. But they’re just a starting point for the hard work that needs to be done on the movement for racial and economic justice. When we are in the workplace, we don’t leave our diversity, we don’t leave those experiences that define who we are at home. It’s so important that we’re able to have those dialogues at work and be part of that inclusive culture — taking the best parts of ourselves.
4. Create safe spaces for productive conversations
Create safe spaces for productive conversations in which employees feel free to express themselves. Establish standards and norms of communication, encourage employees to focus on common goals, and set examples of respect and civility.
Remember to balance formal conversations led by leadership with informal, small-group, or one-on-one conversations between individual employees. That balance can be especially difficult in a remote or hybrid workforce environment and may feel uncomfortable at first, but it is important to normalize conversations about political and social justice issues so you and your team can build a common language to understand each other’s experiences, differences, and views.