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THE TIME TO TALK: WHY ORGANISATIONS SHOULD SPEAK UP AGAINST RACIAL INJUSTICE

As the Black community and its allies galvanise decisive action against systemic racism and call for decided change across the world, it’s important for organisations to consider the impact it is having on their own people, and the message that they’re giving around racism and injustice.

WORDS: ISABEL OVERTON

15th June 2020

The unlawful killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was suffocated in broad daylight by police officers in America, has caused outrage and grief across the world. The aftermath has sparked widespread anti-racism protests in a number of countries, including the UK, and conversations about race, equality and allyship – non-Black people taking the struggle on as their own – have come to the fore.

For Black employees, and for those who have committed to being allies in the cause, this is a difficult period to be working through, and many people have been looking at how their own organisations are handling and addressing such a weighted issue.


Speaking out

Standing united with the Black Lives Matter movement should be a priority for organisations that value inclusion and/or consider it to be a core value, and for those that profit from or target racially diverse audiences.

Jennifer Thomas, a director of comms, says: “Responses to a topic such as this have to be very specific to the organisation – it needs to be personal and relevant, and it has to fit with your culture. Pause and think about who you are as an organisation before you respond.

“You don’t need to be a leader in diversity and inclusion to say something about this. Acknowledging what is going on outside of your doors and bringing that into your company is important.
 

“Too often, businesses get hung up on what the right PR angle is, or what their stakeholders, clients or customers may think, but this is a time to be bold. And I believe if done in an authentic, meaningful and collaborative way with Black people, it can only be beneficial for any business.


“I think there is something really powerful about saying ‘I see you and I hear you; I don’t have all the answers right now, but I want to do something’.”


Seeking education

Racism is still an uncomfortable topic for many people, so if you’re worried about saying the wrong thing, or are unsure of what language to use, do your research.  

Kamiqua Pearce, founder of Coldr, a communication, brand positioning and coaching consultancy, says: “No matter what you do, don’t be silent with your employees – especially if your silence comes from the belief that it is ‘too political’. There are so many reading lists and resources being shared on the Black British experience online. Use reputable sources to educate yourself on the issues, and also on the different definitions and terms that are being used.

“Once you’ve done this, feel empowered to be very specific in your comms – black is not a dirty word, so don’t shy away from using it.

“Often when organisations try to avoid being too political, they talk about blanket racism, but the issue we are discussing in this current time is very specific to Black people, so avoid placing everyone under one umbrella, or you will likely alienate your Black employees.

“Sensitivity and understanding are also needed. This isn’t just an American problem, and many Black people in the UK have been affected by it. Be aware of your privilege and be aware that not all Black people are the same and will be affected differently. Some may not feel comfortable having a conversation with someone outside of their family or friendship circle. There is no right answer, so you’ll need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

While the Black community is feeling a shared sense of grief, it is important to remember that there are still different cultures and different challenges within that.  

“Don’t make assumptions and generalisations about how Black people will be feeling and thinking based on what you read online,” says Jennifer.

“If you’re fortunate enough to have Black people in your business then speak to them about the situation, and give them a platform to share their voice and their presence. But remember, it’s not their job to teach the organisation about racism, and not all Black people will want to engage in that way.

“Arm yourself with knowledge about the issues, and let your Black employees know that you want to hear their own experiences and thoughts, should they wish to share them. Be proactive, take the lead, initiate the conversation.
 

Supporting your people

Supporting your Black employees and any others who have been affected by the issues at hand goes far beyond speaking out against racial injustice.

“Ensure leaders and managers check in with your Black employees and ask them how they are doing,” says Kamiqua.


“Not everyone will want to open up and talk about it, but there is no harm in letting people know that you are there to talk if they want to.  


“Make sure you also continue to have conversations about what is needed in your organisation to better support Black employees now and moving forward. If there are relevant networks already set up within your organisation, then host sessions in partnership with them and invite senior members of the organisation to come, listen and have open conversations.

“I have heard that some companies in the US and a few in the UK have also been offering time off and flexibility to staff affected by this, so if that is something you think will benefit your employees, open this up to them. Be open about people attending protests etc, and allow people to do what they believe is right for them – yes Covid-19 is still a concern, but you need to have trust in employees and your company processes, especially in a situation like this. Address any considerations in line with any policies you have in place that might cover issues that discuss conduct outside of the office, and if you don’t have any already established, put some in place.”


Stepping up

Using your words to denounce racial injustice and showing support for your employees is important, but all of this will become trivialised if you don’t follow it up with action to address and change the failings that may be present and hurting inclusion within your own organisation.

“Avoid token gestures and one-off statements,” says Jennifer. “There’s no harm in sharing an initial response that lets employees know you’re taking the time to educate yourselves and look internally at your own failings around inclusion, but you then need to make sure you build on that and come back to your people with a plan.

“Don’t be afraid to speak directly to your Black employees. Listen and engage, and then work collaboratively to figure out what the solution to the challenges you’re trying to address internally could be, and how you can get to the desired outcome. This will vary for different organisations, so it’s important to tailor it to the needs of your own people.

“Remember: everyone has a part to play in combatting discrimination and racism.

“There is a danger that when we see horrific injustices and stark images like the ones surrounding George Floyd’s death, whether through social media or through the news, we associate it as being something that is happening outside of our own community.

“But racism builds, and it occurs at all stages of life in all areas – including the workplace. Failing to acknowledge the many steps that lead to such brazen violence, and ignoring the entire journey, only hurts Black people more.”


Kamiqua Pearce has brought a collective of leading Black female PR and internal communication professionals together to create Black Box Community – a safe space dedicated to closing the gap between allies and Black communication professionals. Just as a black box is compulsory for the success of every flight, the Black Box Community will provide attendees with the compulsory communication tools/steps to create better, more inclusive environments in the workplace. The first webinar session will be taking place on Monday 6 July at 12.30. Attendees will gain first access to exclusive research that outlines the challenges and barriers facing Black professionals in the communications industry. For more information, follow Kamiqua Pearce, Annique Simpson, Jo Ogunleye or Viya Nsumbu on Twitter or email [email protected].

 

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