The killing of George Floyd, an African American, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer, was a tragic moment in our country’s history.  It has sparked weeks of public protests in cities and states across the U.S.  Individuals have gone to the streets to voice their concerns about the issues of racial injustice in American society.  While police brutality may be at the forefront, the movement is aimed at shedding light on all areas of racial inequality.  Many high-profile figures, from politicians to stars to professional athletes, have been vocal about their condemnation of racial bias.  They have further indicated in no uncertain terms that any individual, company, or organization that remains silent on issues of racial inequality is in fact complacent and part of the problem.

This call to denounce racism has prompted companies in all industries and of all sizes to reaffirm publicly – to their customers, patrons, clients, and employees – that they condemn racism.  Companies have taken the opportunity to identify specific actions they are taking to combat it in their businesses or in society.

While many high-profile public companies have taken action in their capacity as employers, some may perceive this as an overall socioeconomic issue that does not impact their workplaces.  They also may feel uncomfortable addressing the protests and the polarizing social issues that pertain to their own workforce.  They may choose to remain silent.

It may, however, be a mistake to ignore this opportunity to remind employees that your workplace is committed to embracing the ideas of diversity and inclusion, and to enforcing its nondiscrimination and harassment policies.  Why?  Because as stated above, silence could be construed by employees as condoning the status quo.  When silence occurs, employees tend to fill the vacuum with their own beliefs about the company’s position, which may lead to a negative perception of the organization.

It has always been important for companies to create an atmosphere where employees feel comfortable expressing concerns and feeling that there is an open door to communication.  Now, more than ever, employers should maintain open lines of communication with their employees.  Employers should consider addressing the issues rather than remaining silent.  Here are some practical suggestions:

  • Reaffirm your organization’s commitment to a work environment where all people are treated with dignity and respect. Now is a good time to remind your workers of your company’s policies against discrimination, harassment and bullying, and to provide training on these policies.  Since many are not in the workplace at this time, such training can be done virtually, using technology such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
  • In consultation with experienced employment counsel, review your hiring practices and consider what strategies may be adopted to recruit more minority candidates. One practical way of promoting diversity in the workplace is to make sure that you actively seek out candidates from diverse backgrounds, such as by using recruitment resources and outreach activities that are more likely to generate a diverse applicant pool.
  • In addition, there is a need for honest self-reflection about the impact of all policies, practices, and even the company culture on minority employees, especially Black and African American employees. Companies should take the opportunity for self-reflection in all aspects of the workplace. This includes the more tangible aspects of work life, such as recruitment, performance management, promotions, and compensation. Equally important, it also extends to the less tangible aspects of employment, such as social events, communication style (g., “microaggression”), and sponsorship (informal mentoring in which the mentor advocates for rather than advises the employee). All of these can foster an inclusive workplace or undermine it.  Reflecting on how your policies and practices impact the working environment for all employees, and making changes where necessary to support diversity and inclusion, shows that your company takes its commitments in this area seriously and will take appropriate steps to ensure that it is achieved in the workplace.
  • Consider crafting a statement published to all employees, similar to those publicized in the news from other CEOs in corporate America, condemning racism and reaffirming your company’s commitment to making sure employees of all races feel valued in the workplace. Understand, however, that the statements you issue will be scrutinized and evaluated by everyone in your workforce and, quite probably, the public, so be thoughtful in what you write and seek advice from reliable resources before publishing.
  • Make sure you have resources available for employees who are having difficulty processing issues of racial injustice. For example, if you have an Employee Assistance Program, make sure to remind employees of its availability if they feel the need to discuss these issues with someone confidentially.  Also, you should remind employees about any other available health benefits that they can utilize if they are having mental or emotional health issues.

Supporting employees during this time is critical. And it is critical to be thoughtful in doing so.