4 strategies for addressing racial tensions, unrest

How can organizations respond when 'instead of COVID-19, we are living 1619'?
By: | June 8, 2020 • 4 min read
(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Open and honest “race conversations.”

Vulnerable communications with leaders.

Small-group discussions, conversation guides, time off to volunteer.

“Asking for grace.”

These were just a few of the ideas discussed last week when more than 400 diversity, human resources and other leaders gathered with the Chief Diversity Officer Board of the Institute for Corporate Productivity. The open call focused on the impact on organizations of the death of George Floyd, related protests and nationwide social unrest.

Related: What does the social unrest mean for HR leaders?

Led by board chair Jacqui Robertson, global head of talent, diversity and inclusion at investment bank William Blair, it was a somber discussion, one that replaced the topic of COVID-19 after 11 weeks of focus on response to that crisis.

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“Today we need to shift this agenda,” Robertson said in her opening remarks. “As if COVID wasn’t enough, we find ourselves in another pandemic. Some would say instead of COVID-19, we are living 1619.”

Comparing the seemingly intractable disparities between African-American and other communities in both the healthcare and the justice systems, Robertson asked, “Is it any wonder that black mothers must teach their young sons how to navigate a traffic stop?”

But she called on the group to share their ideas in the interest of helping organizations move ahead.

“We can’t control what’s going on outside of our organizations,” Robertson said. “But we can certainly help our leaders inside our organizations today support, lean in, engage in the right conversations with employees, and just like COVID, focus on ensuring that psychological safety, that wellbeing of all our employees, so that they can, amidst all of this chaos and stress, regain that motivation to bring their best thinking and perform to their highest potential.”

Here are just a few suggestions and observations from the conversation:

Have open discussions.

“I don’t know that there is a playbook for this. I don’t know that there is a right way to approach it. The one thing that I know is not right is to not try and have a conversation,” said Corinne Abramson, senior director of inclusion and diversity at Choice Hotels. Her organization quickly arranged a series of calls and heard from CEO Patrick Pacious on Tuesday. Pacious admitted he might stumble during the difficult discussion, even “asking for grace,” Abramson said. It set the stage for what Abramson called an open and energizing conversation among employees about how the company can respond to the tensions.

Related: How Choice Hotels plans to put action behind its words

Robertson noted vulnerability as a crucial point.

“We have to help our leaders understand that they don’t have to be perfect and they don’t have to engage in these conversations in a perfect way,” she said. “It’s really about listening, being able to lean in and just embrace and be willing to have that dialogue.”

Create conversation guides.

Concrete resources also are important in this time. Many leaders discussed plans to update, improve or create guides, particularly mentioning helping “allies” find the right words or the safe spaces to empathize and offer help even if they aren’t sure how to do that. Providing guides and tools for managers to start those discussions and “allow empathy to take it from there” will be a great start, said Justin Foster, global HR leader with DLL in the Netherlands.

Related: How the world’s most admired companies drive D&I

“Many of my friends have reached out to me saying, I would love to support you. I just don’t know how,” Foster said. “And I think that it is a rally cry or a reach for help to say, I want to be a part of this movement. I want be part of the solution. How to do I do that?

“We need to show managers and leaders how to have those discussions and  how to take action from those discussions.”

Take a stand.

Several leaders indicated that their companies, including the Capital Group and Pitney Bowes, had already or were planning to take public positions on Floyd’s death or racial injustice broadly. For the Capital Group, that response arose organically based in part on conversations that started around the time of a racial incident in Indianapolis, said Jim Evans, senior vice president of human resources.

“Our organization was already sensitized to it and I think that it just helped to galvanize us a group to come together and say, ‘Hey, we as an organization need to take a stand,’ ” Evans said. “The power of it was hearing the voices of our associates just sharing how they were living through this experience of being overpoliced.

“And that just really made a big difference for us and a huge difference for our associates.”

Related: Sumser: 8 ways to reflect on your HR ethics

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It’s a process, not a one-time event.

For Wells Fargo, the process began in consultation with the enterprise communications team and with advice from the D&I consultants. Senior executives sent a personalized message to their groups early last week, following up on a previous message from the CEO that provided resources for employees and guidance for conversations, Wells Fargo’s Kelley Cornish wrote in a chat during the conversation. The company expressed support for BlackOut Tuesday in internal and external communications; its chief diversity officer “huddles throughout the day with our executives on next steps,” and they’re listening to “the tone and requests” of employees as they determine what’s next, Cornish said.

“We’re taking it minute by minute,” wrote Cornish, senior vice president of global diversity and inclusion strategy and integration, “because the events really are fluid.”

For more, listen to the call here.

Elizabeth Clarke is executive editor of Human Resource Executive. She earned a journalism degree from the University of Florida and then spent more than 25 years as a reporter and editor in South Florida before joining HRE. Elizabeth lives with her family in Palm Beach County. She can be reached at eclarke@lrp.com.