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4 things managers should—and shouldn't—do to address this moment of racial reckoning

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A protester hold sign board "Justice for George" into a fire outside a Target store near the Third Police Precinct on May 28, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd.
Kerem Yucel | AFP | Getty Images

The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minnesota police officer has reignited outrage against racism and police brutality. Protesters have taken to the streets to express their frustration. But off the streets, there's another crisis that needs to be addressed — in the workplace.

As a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, my job is to help organizations turn positive intentions into positive impact and bridge the gap between executives and their employees. Workers right now are facing enormous stress, pressure and anxiety.

So how can leaders, from CEOs to team managers, support their teams in this moment of racial reckoning on top of a global pandemic? Here are a few ways to start:

1. Acknowledge what's happening

First, it's important to address the current events. Use this moment to reiterate company values, and to take a stand against racism and police violence. Make it clear that you are committed to making changes that promote equality, justice and fair treatment for all.

Acknowledgement isn't just some quick, impersonal announcement. If you don't know what to say, educate yourself on facts about racism and injustice from reliable sources (there are plenty of available online) and your human resources team.

What not to do: Choosing not to take a stance (by saying nothing at all) is the opposite of good leadership. Your employees need decisive communication about what you do and don't support. Do you support their needs? Do you support their beliefs? Do you understand why societal change needs to happen?

2. Reduce work-related pressure

Recognize the additional tolls — physically, mentally and emotionally — that these events have on your workers, especially black employees. Give them the space to be angry, afraid, confused or even disengaged from work.

Here are a few ways to encourage self-care:

  • Offer additional days of paid leave
  • Offer more flexibility in work schedules
  • Allow extensions on deadlines
  • Temporarily redistribute responsibilities based on each person's capacity to contribute
  • Cancel or postpone non-urgent meetings

What not to do: This isn't the time to say, "Business as usual." Downplaying the impact of these events while stressing focus on productivity can reduce employee morale, trust and mental health.

3. Make space for discussion

Many people may want to discuss what's going on, so create an environment where all employees can have a safe and comfortable conversation about race. That might mean having an open discussion in a large group, or having individual ones with each team member.

As a manager, it's not just your job to lead these conversations. Participating and being vulnerable (e.g., sharing your own reflections or things you've been struggling with) is important to drive home the fact you, too, care about these issues.

What not to do: Don't ask black employees to share unless they volunteered to on their own. Also, don't assume that they'll be able to provide resources or education on-demand.

4. Support communities beyond the workplace

While employees value internal support, the actions you take outside of the workplace can have a powerful impact. So think about how you can contribute in your local communities in ways that will push for positive changes. 

The beauty brand Glossier, for example, said it would give $1 million in total to organizations combating racial injustice and grants to black-owned beauty businesses.

What not to do: Don't use these external actions to draw attention away from internal challenges that have yet to be resolved.

Lily Zheng is a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant. She has written for the Harvard Business Review, Quartz at Work and HR Executive. Lily is also the co-author of "Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace: Transgender and Gender-Diverse Discrimination" and "The Ethical Sellout: Maintaining Your Integrity in the Age of Compromise." 

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