As an adjunct professor, Ruchika Tulshyan felt compelled to reach out to her students after the murder of George Floyd. As she drafted an email to send to her students, she was also thinking about how she hadn’t yet heard from her department. So she decided to forward the note to her colleagues to see if it might spur a conversation around what other faculty and the department more broadly were saying and doing. She got a flood of responses from other faculty members sharing what they’d sent to their own students and thanking her for raising the issue.
Tulshyan happens to also be an inclusion strategist and founder of Candour, well-versed in conversations about race and inequality in the workplace. But you don’t have to be a diversity and inclusion professional to be uncomfortable and upset if—in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the protests breaking out against the deep-seated racism in America and the violence and injustice police and other institutions have subjected Black people to in this country for generations—your organization hasn’t responded adequately, or at all.
If you’re just one employee overwhelmed by what’s happening and agonizing over your company’s silence—whether in terms of a public statement, an internal dialogue, a commitment to long-term action, or immediate support for Black employees—here’s what you can do.
Be Clear About Who Needs to Step Up Right Now
Black employees are exhausted, says Muse career coach Adrean Turner. “We still have to show up and perform our responsibilities while we’re not only managing our own grief but supporting our families, our friends, our spouses.”
But often, companies look to the very same people who are victims of violence and injustice for guidance, says Ella Washington, an organizational psychologist and professor of practice in management at Georgetown University. “It’s not a new thought that Black employees are charged with helping the organization understand why these issues are important and also charged with coming up with solutions to their own plight. That in itself is an injustice,” she says.
If your company has been silent, or responded insufficiently in your view, think first about whose responsibility it actually is to step up and to ask the organization to do the same. “To be explicit, Black employees should not be bearing this burden right now—this is a time for allies to call for attention and support their Black colleagues,” says Evelyn Carter, a social psychologist and director at Paradigm.
“If you are not Black, you do not have the luxury of staying silent. You must speak up. You must do the quick work to educate yourself and those in your immediate network. For Black employees, the advice is almost the exact opposite. You don’t have to engage. You don’t have to explain anything. If and where possible, take breaks and tell people what you need, unapologetically.”
That’s not to say that Black employees can’t take action at work, of course. “If you have the energy and desire to speak up, do so!” says Carter, who heard from a client that a Black employee’s moving post on social media spurred action within their organization. “However, it is OK if you don’t want to. Let allies...step up and do the work while you take the time you need to take care of yourself and support our community.”
Washington similarly encourages Black employees to use their voices however they need, including to tell your manager you need to unplug or take a day or afternoon off. Your focus should be on “practicing some self-care in this time of chaos and trauma,” she says.
For non-Black employees, on the other hand, Washington says, “This is your opportunity to step up and find your voice in this conversation of racial inclusion, not just diversity and inclusion broadly.”
Remember There’s Strength in Numbers
You don’t have to go right to the CEO all by yourself. “Start by finding who your allies are within the organization,” Tulshyan says. Send an email to a few coworkers you have good rapport with or bring it up on a video call you might already be on. Tell them what you’re seeing on the news and on the streets and how you’re feeling about it. Then add something like, “I really would love to see our company make a stand and be vocal about what’s going on. What do you think?... Would I have your support?”
You can also use these conversations with your colleagues to figure out what it is you’d like to see happen at your company. “What had been helpful for HubSpotters before we had a Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging team was to start grassroots conversations with other colleagues and work together to come up with clear asks for our leadership team,” says Melissa Obleada, Diversity & Inclusion Program Manager at HubSpot.
There’s strength in numbers, Obleada, Tulshyan, and Turner all say. “Try not to do it alone. Have other advocates within your organization to join you,” Turner says. You may decide to co-sign a letter or email to your higher ups and it can help to show from the get-go that this goes beyond one individual. Turner gives an example of someone she knows who sent a letter to her leadership along with a few of her coworkers from different teams. Even with a small handful of people, they were able to signal that “regardless of where they were in the organization, they had a mutual want and need to get leadership to be more active.”
Understand the Risks—and Use Your Privilege
Speaking up rarely comes without risks. If it were easy, someone else probably would have done it already. Know that “it could cost you your job or your relationship with your peers,” Turner says, especially if you know that your leadership wouldn’t be receptive based on their past behavior. It’s another reason having allies can help; if you are retaliated against, they can stand up for you.
And then “really assess the risk... Are you ready to take it on?” Tulshyan says. “The more privilege and influence you have the better.” If you know your opinion is respected and that you probably wouldn’t lose your job for speaking out—or that your skills are so in demand that you could easily find another—it’s all the more reason for you to be the one to say something. There may be many others at your company who feel the same way but can’t afford to put themselves out there as much as you can.
While it’s important not to speak up without considering the consequences, “you also need to think about, can you in full conscience and in any way continue working for an organization that isn’t really on board with this?” Tulshyan says. “Can I realistically continue on working for an organization which doesn’t align with my values?”
Prepare Suggestions and Examples
Your company may have done nothing at all or perhaps it put out a generic statement—one that felt bland or toothless to you—and called it a day. When you reach out, you can express that you expect more than that.
When you have a question or a problem at work it’s generally more effective to come to your boss with solutions and proposals. That can be the case here, too, if you have specific suggestions for what you’d like to see your company saying or doing, such as holding an internal discussion, sending a note out to all staff, making a public statement, or donating to or supporting other efforts.
Maybe you have observations about what you’ve seen in your company that doesn’t sit well with you—from hiring practices that don’t make diversity an integral component to a tendency for office housework and glamour projects to be assigned disproportionately. It can help your case to articulate your asks in ways that align with your company culture and values.
Every person can identify what challenges they see, accept and be accountable for the role they may have played, and think about what a different future looks like, Washington says.
At the same time, you yourself may not know what the exact right next steps are. That’s OK. You can share examples of what other organizations have done and recommend that your company hire someone with expertise in this arena to invest in the long-term efforts required to make progress.
Reach Out to Leadership
Each and every employee can contribute to anti-racism work at their company. At the same time, leaders are often in the best position to initiate widespread change.
“If your organization has failed to come up with a plan, ask for one,” says Karen Catlin, author of Better Allies. “Send an email to your CEO asking what actionable steps the company is committed to do to combat racism,” she says. Include examples from other companies, she explains, pointing to Pinterest, Upwork, and The Lead Developer as a few she’s personally come across, and “let them know why this is important to you. Or, if you have an all-company meeting, raise it there.”
You can also reach out to your executive team more broadly or to the head of the HR or people team. The important thing is to “hold your leadership accountable: Ask how they are working to support Black employees at this time, and how they are working to address inequities within their organization,” Carter says. “If you feel like you might be retaliated against...many organizations have anonymous Q&As for all-hands meetings, HR hotlines, and other options for asking these questions.”
Carter suggests you might say something like: “There is a lot going on in our country right now, and I believe it’s important for our organization to join the conversation about how to support Black folks and combat anti-Black violence and racism. What is our organization’s plan to make our support clear, both internally and externally?”
The exact note you send will depend on you, your situation, and your company. Tulshyan encourages being open and vulnerable and honest in your outreach, starting with a note like this: “Dear so-and-so, The events and protests around this country around Black Lives Matter have really moved me and I would really like to see some action from our leadership. This is something where I’m seeing companies really standing up, like [link to some examples here]. I think it would be really incredible to have our company stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and anti-racism work. I would love to be part of it. Please let me know how I can be helpful.”
If you’re looking for an even more detailed template, try this powerful one written by Whitney Evans and shared by Rachel Cargle.
Once you’ve written a draft, it can help to get feedback. “If you have an ally on HR or leadership—or even a colleague who works with executives often—ask them to look over the copy and poke holes in it before sending,” Obleada says.
And remember that the fact that many companies are still under work-from-home orders due to the coronavirus pandemic shouldn’t affect your company’s ability to respond appropriately. “If you can figure out how to run your business remotely, you can figure out how to be inclusive and support your employees,” Carter says. “We’re seeing companies send out company-wide communications, make public [declarations], hold virtual trainings and listening circles, share reading lists, and recognize and accommodate the needs of Black employees. It can all happen virtually!”
Talk to Your Manager
Reaching out to the CEO or executive team or even the head of HR might be daunting, especially if you work at a large company and these leaders are far removed from your everyday experience. If you don’t feel like that’s the right step for you, consider bringing up your concerns during a team meeting or one-on-one with your boss.
It may not be as direct of a route, but your message can get escalated, Turner says. One woman she spoke with talked to her manager and soon received an email from a senior executive laying out what the company’s plan was and inviting her to share her thoughts.
Support Black Colleagues
You don’t need a company directive from on high to help your colleagues. If you’re not Black, you can reach out to Black coworkers you already have a relationship with and “offer support in whichever ways are helpful—taking work off their plate, holding space for conversation—and make it explicit that not replying or engaging right now is OK,” Carter says. They may be overwhelmed right now with people trying to reach out (some more genuinely than others) and have no interest in talking to you.
“Part of allyship is really challenging yourself to take action and support others without expecting praise, attribution, or acknowledgment,” Carter says. “And remember that what any individual needs may be different, so expect and accept that what feels supportive and genuine to one colleague may not land as well with another.”
Keep Learning and Doing—and Help Change the Culture
“It can be incredibly frustrating and hurtful to feel like your company is not doing the right thing, enough, or anything at all,” Obleada says. “It is more than OK to feel dissatisfied or let down by your company’s action or inaction, but take a moment to reflect on how you feel and what you can control. If you’re an ally, there’s work we can all do ourselves to improve and grow in this area.”
So beyond expecting and prodding your organization to respond to this moment, make sure you’re also putting in the effort to educate yourself so that you can be a part of the ongoing conversation and action. Take advantage of all the resources flying around online right now about what to read, watch, and listen to—like this and this and this. Share these with your colleagues along with opportunities to volunteer, donate, and get involved.
As you educate yourself, keep this in mind: “Do not put the burden of education about Black people’s experiences on your Black colleagues (or friends, family, or neighbors),” Carter says. “And take the time to educate other folks, too! In some of my own research, I’ve found that folks are most likely to influence those in their immediate circle—friends, neighbors, family members. So reach out to the people you interact with regularly, share the resources with them, and encourage them to learn more as well.”
And don’t shy away for fear you’ll make a mistake. “As a white person, I have to admit it can be hard to have conversations about race,” Catlin says. “I haven’t experienced the racial inequity and systemic oppression so many people face, and I’m concerned I’ll make a mistake. That I might say the wrong thing. Or act in a way that’s not helpful and possibly even hurtful,” she says. “Let’s face it. It can be a lot easier to pull back from these conversations and become simply a bystander. But here’s the thing. The world needs more upstanders.”
Whether or not you’ve succeeded in getting your company to respond as you want it to, remember that you can also do your part to change the culture of your organization, to be an ally, and to incorporate anti-racist actions into your professional ethos.
“You don't need corporate sponsorship to have a Zoom gathering for Black employees, start a Slack channel to share organizations to donate to, or have a discussion during lunch that’s meant to provide resources to allies,” Obleada says. “As frustrating as it can be to not get the response you wanted from the top, that does not mean you can’t create positive change in your organization.”
There is a lot happening in the world right now, with these most recent instances of police brutality coming in the midst of a global public health crisis. “I realize [this] is a tall order in the midst of COVID-19,” Washington says. Everyone is stretched thin, trying to do more with less while dealing with concerns about health, finances, childcare, and more.
But “the racism pandemic did not stop because of COVID-19,” Washington says. In fact, it’s been exacerbated, with the virus disproportionately impacting Black Americans as they simultaneously deal with the longstanding realities of racism in this country. “This is the time to demand more from our leaders, demand more from our HR organizations, and demand more from ourselves.”