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Ten Ways White People Can Support Black Coworkers

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

When forests burn, new growth emerges. That’s what I’m focusing on as I watch the protests and riots in the aftermath of the most recent Black lives murdered by police. People are risking their lives in this age of coronavirus to go out on the streets and stand up for justice.

New growth after forest fire
New growth after forest fire

The world has been stripped down, raw, to its core. Structures and processes have been torn apart, especially in the USA. Our economy and communities have been decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic and our federal government’s complete failure to respond effectively. We have fallen from being the “leader of the free world” (how I hate that descriptor) to being one of the least-respected countries. And now our cities are burning in response to pent-up anger over the tragic effects of our racist and paramilitary police structures.

White people created racism, and it’s on us to fix it.

As North Carolina-based writer, podcaster, and multimedia artist Candace Howze writes, “Racism exists because white colonists decided hundreds of years ago to dominate a land full of native people who were minding their own business and then to kidnap people from another continent to labor mercilessly without compensation for their economic gain. And every turn of events since, every snippet of progress thereafter, has been twisted to maintain the economic and social hierarchy that existed the day America became America.”

As white people, we have the opportunity to effect change in our homes, workplaces, and government structures. The first step is to acknowledge our own internalized racism.

What does internalized and systemic racism look like?

  • It might be feeling unsafe or averting your gaze when you see a Black man in a hoodie walking down the street.

  • It might be not recognizing that the books, music, movies, and memories you hold dear have no Black people or experience in them.

  • It might look like judging a job candidate or celebrity unfairly because they don’t look or talk like you.

  • Or not feeling comfortable if your son or daughter announces they want to marry a Black person.

  • It might look like ignoring the fact that Black people are multiple times more likely to be treated unfairly in school, arrested, imprisoned, hurt or killed in police custody, disregarded at the doctor’s office, hurt or killed in childbirth, falsely convicted, or on death row.

  • It might look like judging people unfairly (“welfare mom,” “thugs,” or “rioters”) without understanding what made them food-insecure, poor, or angry.

  • It might look like focusing on “Black-on-Black crime” or saying it’s racist to talk about white people in general because you never personally enslaved anyone.

  • Or it might be wanting to live in a gentrified part of the city while sending your child to a school in a more privileged neighborhood and not recognizing the displacement of Black people in the neighborhood where you bought a house.

If you’re ready to actively work for anti-racism, a great place to start is the workplace.

Here are 10 tangible things companies and individuals can do to work toward a more inclusive environment, support your Black coworkers, and support Black people everywhere during this painful time in their lives:

1. Publicize your support and back it up with a donation

Hey, I’m a communicator—what do you expect? Of course communication is going to be first on my list!

If you are an executive, have you communicated with your entire company about racism and publicly expressed your support for those protesting?

Follow the lead of companies like Warner Brothers, Disney, ViacomCBS, Nike, Target, Lionsgate, Amazon Prime Video, JPMorgan, Google, Twitter, Microsoft, Hulu, HBO, Tik Tok, Paramount, Nordstrom, Citi, Twitch, YouTube, Netflix, and Starz, Jacobs Engineering, Powell’s Books, Ben & Jerry’s, and Apple, which have publicly expressed support for Black lives.

Some have also donated money to the cause. In a rare gesture of solidarity, adidas even retweeted its competitor Nike’s moving Black Lives Matter video.

Companies expressing support for BLM
Companies expressing support for BLM

This is your opportunity to be a thought leader, walk your talk, express support for your Black employees, and show all of your employees that you are working against racism. While Nike posted its external ad, its CEO sent a message to all of its employees as well.

When you draft your message, make sure you show it to some Black employees or colleagues before you finalize it so you don’t mess up. For example, Intel issued a bland public tweet that was seriously lacking specificity. Far more effective would have been, “…stand against the ongoing prevalent pattern of police brutality against the Black population.”

You’ve GOT TO BE AUTHENTIC. Don’t just do it for the PR. That is called performative. Be real and mean it. Over the weekend I saw some huge disasters happening with entrepreneurial companies. In one case, a “boss mom” business coach did a Facebook Live video in which she defended her actions to silence discussions about race, talked about people hating her, and said she has to “police” the posts on her feed. She actually devolved into a crying fit…proving my point about white women tears.

Walk your talk. While you give your support publicly, donate to Black causes.

Here’s a list of ways to help the Black community in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed. Match your public support with action and money.

I have made an additional donation to Black Lives Matter today before I posted this article. You can also view the list of resources President Obama shared, which the Obama Foundation has set up.

2. Communicate your support to your Black employees, friends, and colleagues

Black people across the USA are exhausted. Not a day goes by that they don’t experience racism in some way. Several doctors’ groups have stated that racism is a public health emergency. Racism puts the Black community’s health at risk, causing deep psychological harm.

Roxane Gay wrote in The New York Times that “no one is coming to save us” and “Eventually doctors will find a coronavirus vaccine, but black people will continue to wait for a cure for racism.”

Listen to acclaimed entrepreneur and business coach Nicole Walters talk about the emotional damages being wrought on Black people right now. She is pulled over by police in her Atlanta neighborhood four to five times each year. Each stop takes 45 minutes at least, and she did not know that was not normal until her husband told her. This highly successful woman is terrified for her life.

This kind of daily oppression leaves permanent emotional scars.

And when people constantly see images of Floyd George being murdered with a foot on his neck, or read about Ahmaud Arbery or Breonna Taylor being gunned down while they were jogging and sleeping…this stuff is deeply traumatic. Watch Killer Mike deliver an impassioned speech about the impact on the Black community.

As I’ve reached out to my Black friends to express my support, they have expressed appreciation while saying they haven’t heard from many of their white friends. White people are afraid to talk about race. We’re often afraid we’re going to screw up. We’re afraid to feel uncomfortable. But we have to risk feeling uncomfortable if we really want to work toward anti-racism.

“For those of you who are tired of hearing about racism, imagine how much more tired we are constantly experiencing it.” –Barbara Smith

Mandela SH Dixon wrote that she has never “felt so Black at work” as on the days that Eric Garner, Michael Brown Jr, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray were killed. And not one of her white coworkers said a thing to her. She writes, “I have never forgotten that feeling; the feeling of being utterly distraught, yet so completely alone in my sadness.” (This is just one reason why companies need employee network groups; see #7 below.)

Women talking in an office

A few years later, she was struck by the fact that her boss, a white woman, mentioned “the anger and pain she was feeling about the fatal shootings of two more Black men by white police officers. She took the time to ask me how I was doing and if I wanted to talk or take some time off. She was in all ways very supportive and proactively so.” Dixon reflected on the rarity of this exchange and realized that the tech industry never talks about Black people being killed by police. (Maybe that explains the bland Intel tweet?)

Understand that “Maintaining Professionalism In The Age of Black Death Is….A Lot,” as Shenequa Golding writes. “I just witnessed the lynching of a black man, but don’t worry Ted, I’ll have those deliverables to you end of day.” Golding talks about the sheer exhaustion Black employees are feeling right now.

“I don’t know who decided that being professional was loosely defined as being divorced of total humanity, but whoever did they’ve aided, unintentionally maybe, in a unique form of suffocation.” --Shenequa Golding

When I have experienced great grief and loss in my own life, I have noticed the people who have stayed silent. When I had a miscarriage, lost my grandparents or father-in-law, or had an extremely premature child born, I appreciated the coworkers who expressed support, even if I felt myself getting emotional. But I always welcomed the gesture and noticed if they did not say anything. As my close friend Doug Fettig says, “Grief reorders your address book.”

Where will you be? Will you still be in the address book of your Black colleagues and friends?

This article gives some excellent tips for how managers can support their Black employees. Reach out, listen, and if you’re just beginning this work, apologize for not noticing before. Yes, you're probably all working from home right now...but don't let that stop you from reaching out.

Also recognize that some Black folks are not going to want to talk about it, especially if you have never paid much attention to all of their brothers and sisters being killed by police in the past 10 years. If you sense that vibe, don't take it personally. Give them the grace to grieve alone.

3. Educate yourself

One of the best things you can do right now is understand the broader reasons behind why Black people and allies are protesting in the streets. Kareem Abdul-Jabar writes in the Los Angeles Times,

“Don’t understand the protests? What you’re seeing is people pushed to the edge.” -Kareem Abdul-Jabar

“What you should see when you see black protesters in the age of Trump and coronavirus is people pushed to the edge, not because they want bars and nail salons open, but because they want to live. To breathe.

Worst of all, is that we are expected to justify our outraged behavior every time the cauldron bubbles over. Almost 70 years ago, Langston Hughes asked in his poem ‘Harlem’: ‘What happens to a dream deferred? /… Maybe it sags / like a heavy load. / Or does it explode?’”

Black Lives Matter protest

Try to understand why this pent-up trauma is exploding. Choose your words carefully when you talk about the protests. Don’t focus on the destruction of the riots (some of which seems to be instigated by the far right); instead focus your anger and dismay at the Black lives being taken by police and the ongoing damages of structural racism. Take some time to watch this video by Trevor Noah, in which he explains how we got to where we are now.

My LinkedIn contact Teddi Williams, BS, RN, ACHE shared her perspectives of the workplace, “So much is excused away with the ‘Was he/she resisting?’ and ‘He/she MUST have being doing something wrong.’

And at work, it's ‘Was it REALLY said that way?’ ‘Are you being TOO sensitive?’ and ‘I'm SURE they didn't mean it that way.’ -Teddi Williams

It's dismissive, demeaning, and offensive to deny how someone experienced something. Had it not been for Omar Jimenez, a CNN journalist of African-American and Latino descent, being arrested on live television yesterday for merely being African-American and Latino while at work...some would attempt to dismiss that experience of what we all witnessed too.”

Another thing: don’t expect your Black colleagues to educate you.

How to Be an Antiracist Book

Google is your friend. Read articles, like this one, that teach you how to be anti-racist. Follow Black people on social media. Read books like How to Be Antiracist, When They Call You a Terrorist, The New Jim Crow, and White Fragility. Watch movies and TV shows by and about Black folks. Pay Black people for their emotional labor by using their services professionally, not forcing them to expend their energy bringing you up to speed.

4. Speak up and become an anti-racism advocate

Here’s my confession. One time many years ago a subordinate made a racist comment to a group of coworkers about people being cooped up in a conference room, “like boat people being cooped up in a small apartment together.” I will always regret not addressing this comment promptly. Don’t let yourself be haunted by a regret like mine.

Like all white people, I’ve made a number of mistakes when talking about racism. This weekend I made another one when I posted a photo on Facebook showing police officers taking a knee. I was schooled (these photos can cause deep pain to Black people who have a history of being assaulted and killed by police officers), and I shared what I had learned. A business contact got schooled when she ran her scheduled marketing campaign, and today she did a vulnerable Facebook Live, explaining what she had learned.

When white people talk about race, we are going to make mistakes. But we are never going to learn if we don’t talk about it.

Silence equals complicity. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and schooled.

Many racist statements are made when Black people or other people of color are not around, and it’s just as important then for us to educate our peers.

Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, I know it’s difficult. But as Glennon Doyle famously says, “we can do hard things.”

If the offending person is your friend, family member, or coworker, you can start with one of these phrases:

  • “I know it wasn’t your intent, but that comment was offensive,”

  • “What did you mean by that?”

  • “Could you repeat that? I wonder if I misunderstood.”

  • “That comment makes me feel uncomfortable.”

  • “What information are you basing that on?”

  • “That sounds racist.”

If they accuse you of being “politically correct” or too sensitive, don’t back down. Instead, you can say "Actually, I'm the perfect amount of sensitive and just plain correct. Words matter. And this has nothing to do with politics."

If you are a leader, it’s even more important for you to address the comment head-on. When my coworker said the racist comment about “boat people,” I could have pulled her aside and addressed it privately, but I would have missed an opportunity to let others know that the comment was offensive.

If your employees push back, follow up with a private, one-on-one conversation and let the person know that you do not tolerate racism in your group (or company).

Get comfortable getting uncomfortable.

5. Invest in high-quality diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training and actions

It is so easy to do this badly. However good their intentions might be, companies waste a lot of money by not investing in excellent resources.

When I worked as a regional publications manager at CH2M HILL, the regional management team invested in sending all of their managers through intensive diversity training. They started at the top and trickled down. As a functional manager, I attended a three-day offsite training with about 30 other managers at my level. It was intense, uncomfortable, and emotional. I saw lives and minds changed through my company’s investment of money in this initiative.

For example, in the mid-1990s, I had a Syracuse Cultural Workers’ calendar on my wall, and it was June. The featured photo was of a pride parade, with two dads and their son. A geotech saw that image and went to grab his supervisor (I’ll call him Rick). They came right into my office, pointing and jeering at the image on my calendar. Years later, when Rick was in my diversity training weekend, he transformed from being a bastion of white toxic masculinity to a man who was attuned and sensitive to the needs and life experiences of others. DEI training, when done well, can work wonders. It changed his life...and helped all the people under his leadership, too.

Hands outstretched together, of all colors

Companies need professional help to do this well. If they are predominantly white, they should not attempt it on their own or they will fumble. They might find yourself saying something ridiculous like “At ABC Company, we don’t see color!” (Here’s why you should never say that.)

Ideally, they should hire people of color to conduct these types of trainings. And remember that training without tangible actions (see #6) will only fall flat.

6. Set DEI goals

For several years I worked as part of a team that produced our annual Sustainability and Corporate Citizenship Report. Each year we set ambitious goals for environmental management and sustainability. Throughout the year we would track our progress. Each year we would ask our company’s corporate HR department to set DEI goals, but we could never get traction on that. So instead we would report our diversity statistics each year without any goals. Even though we didn’t always meet our environmental goals, we knew that if we shot for the moon, we’d land among the stars (thank you, Norman Vincent Peale and Mary Poppins). And we did! We earned many notable awards and accolades for our environmental programs because we were ambitious and methodical about it. The progress with diversity, however, was much slower because we were not setting tangible goals.

Slow progress without DEI goals
Slow progress without goals

DEI goals should include hiring, employee engagement and satisfaction, promotion, and leadership percentage goals, with clear steps to achieve them.

If you really want to move the needle in your company, you need to have each leader set tangible DEI goals. They should be looking for opportunities to help people of color and women get seats at the boardroom table.

It does no good for the company to do DEI training if leaders are not committed to it...and back up that commitment with specific goals.

Another critical reminder: DEI programs should specifically focus on and set goals for Black, indigeneous, and people of color (BIPOC) and disabled people, and not just on women and LGBTQ folks.

7. Create and empower employee networks

Speaking of employee engagement and job satisfaction, show your support for employees who are part of disenfranchised groups by launching and investing in employee network groups.

While I was frustrated with the company’s unwillingness to set tangible DEI goals, what CH2M HILL did well was to create, fund, and empower employee networks. We had global employee networks for women, Black people, Latino people, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities, and veterans. Each of those networks had executive sponsors to advocate for them at the top of the company. They met virtually and occasionally in person, forging partnerships and alliances and talking about the issues they held in common. Now that CH2M HILL has become Jacobs, those employee networks still exist and are thriving.

Denver Women's Network and Girls Inc.
Denver Women's Network teaming up with Girls Inc.

Compare that to what I experienced at my previous employer. While trying to set up a women’s network group, I was told a previous attempt to start a women’s group had been shut down because it made the men nervous to see women meeting in a conference room. (Hello? Women see conference rooms full of men every single day!) This sent entirely the wrong message. The women felt unsupported, unseen, and dismissed. Imagine how those (mostly) white men would have felt to see a conference room full of Black people. I'm sure they would have reacted even worse.

People who are not part of the white male dominant group need confidential spaces where they can meet together and support each other…so they can thrive.

8. Recruit, hire, and promote Black people

Representation is critical to transform our workplaces and show support for people of color (of any hue and background), and especially Black people. Create a recruiting and hiring strategy and follow through. I worked with the recruiter at my previous company to rewrite our job descriptions so they would appeal to a more diverse set of candidates. However, we continually encountered hiring managers who didn’t know how to interview, much less hire, people who didn’t look/act like them or have a similar life experience.

We’d hear comments like “that person didn’t wow me,” “there aren’t enough women/minority candidates in engineering,” or “so-and-so is incredibly qualified” (referring to the white male they wanted to hire).

So DEI education needs to extend to how to recruit, hire, and manage diverse staff and why this is important. “Qualifications” need to be examined. What is most important in a candidate?

Black businessman on his phone

The first thing you could do is have blind resume reviews. Take the names and identifying qualifications off the resumes when you send them around for review. You can also give hiring managers goals to hire more people of color and women. Goals would prompt the hiring managers to ask the recruiter for help, as opposed to forcing the recruiter to face an uphill battle trying to advocate for more diverse hiring practices.

Reach out to minority-represented organizations to recruit and advertise. Invest in mentoring programs and education to middle- and high schoolers and college students. Once they’re hired, pair them up with mentors (ideally who look like them) and create a career advancement strategy for them. Promote Black people into leadership positions to improve the diversity and strength of your organization.

CH2M sponsored STEM education events
Invest in middle-school and high school education

And definitely, provide the support system and infrastructure for people of color to succeed! (See all the other action items.)

Have their supervisor and HR check in with them regularly and privately to see how things are going and if they are feeling supported. Conduct anonymous, confidential surveys to ground-truth the information.

It’s not going to help if you only recruit Black people; you also need to do everything you can to retain them.

9. Transform your leadership team

This seems to be the hardest task for companies to accomplish. In 2018, Harvard Business Review reported, “The Ascend Foundation’s analysis shows that white men (with an executive parity index [EPI] of 1.81) are by far the most-represented group in management; executive parity is a ratio of 1.0. Following them are Hispanic men (1.07), white women (0.65), black men (0.63), Asian men (0.56), Hispanic women (0.49), black women (0.30), and Asian women (0.24).”

Furthermore, “Black men and women still represent a very low percentage of the professional white-collar workforce (less than 8%), given their overall representation in the population.”

Especially in the world of environmental consulting and engineering, women leaders are in the far minority. Black leaders even more so. Yet it will be far more difficult for you to hire and retain Black employees, women, and other people of color if you have an all- or nearly-all white male leadership team. It will also be difficult for you to advance as a company without diversity of thought.

Professional Black women around a conference room table

Companies need to develop training programs and executive sponsorship to prepare Black employees for advancement. Although technical skills are important, often neglected is the softer skill of how to navigate the corporate culture within the firm. Having executive champions champion high-potential Black employees will also help.

10. Advocate for anti-racism and representation in your companies and organizations

Ask your company or organization to take a stand. Demand DEI training and specific goals. Persuade your leadership team to start employee networks and implement the other actions on this list. Hold your employer accountable for racial justice.

Rachel Cargle and Whitney Evans of The Great Unlearn have created an easy template for this purpose. If you use the template, give them a donation.

Be a true ally by demanding change and supporting the Black people in your workplace, now, and for future coworkers to come.

If your companies are tone-deaf or not saying anything, mobilize like employees at Facebook have done. After Twitter put a warning on Trump’s tweet quoting a white supremacist (“When the looting starts, the shooting starts”), Zuckerberg tried to defend this inflammatory tweet and left it up on Facebook. Some of his employees are demanding that he do better.

Commit to buy from Black-owned companies, consultants, vendors, and individuals. Use your platform and your dollars to advance the Black community.

Photo of a Black woman with stethoscope and ballet flats
Photo by Steven Eloiseau on Scopio

As white people, we are all called to unlearn our racist behaviors and beliefs. As writer Mary Helen Kennelly writes, “nurture antiracism in your life like you would a child in your arms, even if you’ve only just heard it named.” It’s never too late to start this journey of unlearning.

And one final thing: VOTE for candidates who work against racism.

Contact me for more information about how to communicate effectively in the workplace. With over 30 years of experience in the environmental consulting industry, I am passionate about sustainability and corporate citizenship, equity & inclusion, businesses that use their power for good, and doing everything I can to create a kinder, more sustainable, and just world.

Fertile Ground Communications LLC is a certified women-owned business enterprise, disadvantaged business enterprise, and emerging small business.

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