HOW TO SPEAK UP
I’m interrupting the series of articles I’ve been writing on The New Retail to address the Black Lives Matter movement in the US that has crescendoed after the horrifying death of George Floyd. As someone who spent over 30 years in corporate America and often found myself to be the only woman and the only African-American in meeting after meeting after meeting, I want to talk to other African-Americans who find themselves in the spotlight right now. If there are others reading this, I invite you to do so, but I wanted to be clear to whom these thoughts are addressed.
The conundrum for anyone who is African-American and finds themselves in a corporate setting right now is that you may feel all eyes are on you. You may be feeling frustrated about wanting to speak up, but not knowing how to do so without jeopardizing your livelihood. Or you may not want to speak up or feel you should have to. Let’s start with this: you are entitled to feel either way. You do not have to speak up and if asked, you can always respond by saying, “Thanks for your concern/question/thoughts. I’m still processing everything myself and I’m not ready to share.” Then leave it at that. If you want to find a way to speak up, I offer the following thoughts.
Be Aware of Company Mission, Goals and Values
If you are working for a company, remember that they are not responsible for solving employees’ personal problems. However, corporations do have an obligation to address societal issues and this is a societal crisis. Companies are a reflection of the communities in which they operate. It is their duty, therefore, to reflect and promote the highest ideals of the community.
Companies are a reflection of the communities in which they operate.
The challenge is that this obligation can often be in direct conflict with a corporation’s duty to shareholders— which is another way of saying delivering profits. Therefore, getting the attention of and affecting change within your company must also take this reality into consideration.
If your management team is white, and mostly white male, they are likely reluctant to initiate a conversation for fear of saying the wrong thing or being confronted with a hostile, upset employee. So, you should begin by acknowledging that as an employee, you wear two hats: you are a steward of the brand and also a part of the community being impacted. You want what’s best for both the brand and the community because that’s good for everyone.
You are a steward of the brand and also a part of the community being impacted
For some companies, considering their values and mission could be a revelation. They may discover they are not very mission driven or their professed values are lacking. Start here and take the time to strengthen what the company stands for. Make it clear and inclusive even if it takes a while to get the language right.
If the mission and values are clear, you can then address the situation with first-hand knowledge of the challenges of being Black in America while offering some constructive ideas for your organization. For example, we’ve seen a lot of great statements of solidarity. That’s nice, but that’s all it is…nice. Reinforce that you’re glad your company is publicly supporting the call for equality followed by a question about “What else have we considered?” If the question is bounced back to you ask, “What do you think would be consistent with our company values? Where do you think we could uniquely help?” Involve others in answering these questions.
Many companies are going a step further and offering large donations to organizations that serve the black community. This is helpful and an opportunity for you to suggest ways to ensure these dollars are effectively deployed. As an example, would the company also be willing to fund an executive-on-loan program to help non-profits who may need additional skills on their leadership teams? Would your company be willing to offer their facilities to deliver services? Speak up in a way that validates the decision—“XYZ is a great organization to partner with.”—then challenge your leadership to take it further—“What else can we offer in addition to funding?”.
Ask About the Numbers
Most importantly, use your voice to ask about systemic changes within your company. Talent is evenly distributed throughout humanity; opportunity is not. How can your company level the playing field? Are candidate pools required to be diverse? Are you utilizing panel interviews so candidates are heard simultaneously and discussed afterwards to insure balanced screening?
Talent is evenly distributed throughout humanity; opportunity is not.
How about your performance review process? Is your company willing to overhaul the process to increase objectivity? Does your company even know if there are patterns of discrimination in ratings that are given to groups such as women and people of color? Some companies aren’t looking at the data in order to avoid creating a liability or having to react to it.
How about the percentage of women and people of color by level within the company? It can often be easier to paint a more positive picture if you include the most junior levels in an organization. How do these numbers change as you look at more senior roles in the organization? As an example, a company I used to work for recently stated that African-American employees are over 20% of the workforce. What they didn’t explain was this includes retail associates in their stores organization, not just at their headquarters where decisions are made. They also published a number showing 9.9% of Vice Presidents are African-American. However, did this number consider gender as well? Are women of color represented in the same way as men of color? It can be impactful when you ask that multiple dimensions of diversity be considered.
Ask the Question Without Asking the Question
I’ve been approached by individuals who are not African-American and asked what they can do. One opportunity for them is to be an ally in the moment. I often had to make a choice between how much “goodwill” I was willing to burn by being the only one to speak up in a meeting. I had to learn to ask the question without asking the question. For example, when I was in a meeting with a leadership team on which I was the only African-American, we were asked to call out names of employees we felt were high potential. When the list was “done” it was evident to me that every single person was white despite the fact that the organization we were leading was probably 40% African-American. Instead of pointing out the obvious, I asked, “So, how do we feel about this list?” That caused everyone to stop, look and, fortunately, someone else was brave enough to point it out. As a result, we added several black employees to the list who were then given an opportunity, along with everyone else, to participate in a mentoring program. One of these people is now a Vice-President at the company.
Ask: "How do we feel about this?"
A few years later, I had a similar experience only this time, all of the names on the list were white American men. I waited until there was a break and whispered to a woman who was more senior than me and encouraged her to speak up. She did and we added women and people of color to this list.
Do your colleagues notice when there are very few or no African-Americans in the room? In 2015, I attended a meeting of the top 200 people in my global organization. People from all over the world. I was, yet again, the only black person. I pulled our Vice President and her HR Director aside and pointed this out to try to increase their awareness without challenging them in front of the entire gathering.
Make It Personal
If colleagues want to help on an individual level, encourage them to educate themselves and get up to speed on the issue, just as they would with any other challenge. My first response is, “What happened when you Googled that?” It’s a gentle way to remind them that the responsibility is theirs, not yours. There are many lists and articles circulating on the internet right now; here’s one from CNN about advocacy and ally-ship and includes links to reading lists. There is also the Harvard Implicit Bias Test which can be an eye opener for many. Just as the TimesUp movement helped many to understand that women are not responsible for solving the scourge of sexual harassment, black people are not responsible for solving racism. Encourage your colleagues to take personal responsibility for what they do or don’t know and to be better. Applaud them when they do.
One voice can and does make a difference.
This list is not comprehensive and not perfect, but I hope it is helpful to someone out there because often one voice can and does make a difference. Don’t be discouraged if your suggestions seem to be dismissed or if nothing happens right away. I’ve seen my ideas come to life years down the road when I thought they had been forgotten or ignored. It can be difficult to know the exact right thing to say in each moment, but I applaud you for saying something because that is the only way a conversation can begin.
I invite you to reach out to me directly if you have questions or need help. If I can’t help you, I may know someone who can.