Fourteen Ways White Managers Can Help Employees of Color Cope with Racial Tensions — Even without Perfect Confidence or Comfort
It’s just another day in the life of a manager — but with “a little” something extra.
An employee comes to work and seems seriously distracted, anxious, and unfocused. A highly effective employee is suddenly missing deadlines, quieter than normal, and seems disengaged and detached. You notice a typically social butterfly suddenly withdraw, isolate themselves while growing eerily quiet. A usually affable teammate, of late, seems high-pitched and argumentative. That many of them are your Black or Brown employees — maybe you notice; perhaps you don’t. As an effective manager and leader of people, what would you do in these situations? You would engage the employee; you would look for a cause; you would offer support.
But, what if these garden-variety management dilemmas are happening against the backdrop of a national crisis involving a global pandemic; a nationally divisive election; the re-emergence of Nazi flags, confederate flags, White Power signs, and nooses? What if it’s happening to the soundtrack of angry shouting, screaming headlines, bullet pierced churches, conspiracy theories, political polarization, and racial epithets? Typical employee engagement situations that once called for fundamental management skills now require much more.
In the foreground is your team: a diverse group of employees, who are increasingly abuzz with the latest inflammatory Twitter, news story, or videos of Black and Brown people being killed on live TV, and YouTube, and Facebook, and Instagram. Then there’s you: You’re a White, law-abiding, tax-paying, average Jill or Joe. You’re a manager — a proponent of diversity. You know the business case and you work hard to manifest the strategic benefits of inclusion. It’s not particularly revolutionary– but it’s your life. Just you, trying to do your job.
The truth is, it’s a crowded stage of dynamic elements to manage. Strip away the noise, and you would deploy the same concern, management skill, and resources as you might for someone experiencing an ordinary life trauma, like a death or a debilitating injury. However, what makes your application of managerial care in these scenarios different is race. Societally, it’s our own internal cold war, recently recharged into something uglier and brand new, and at the same time, very, very old. And for many White people, who may or may not have to deal with it, Race is a foreboding Blackbox.
But none of this changes your responsibilities as a manager: Attending to the needs of your people.
When it comes to the work world, your employees — especially those who feel uniquely targeted — don’t leave this turmoil at the door. It comes in with them. It’s not just out there; it’s in here. These terrors don’t just haunt employees’ personal lives, they haunt employees’ cubicles — distracting them, exhausting them, limiting their effectiveness, and stunting their ability to engage and focus. Managers aren’t only passive witnesses; managers are in the same mix and mess, but many without the cultural competence and confidence to attend to the complex needs and trauma that employees of color and others bring into the workplace. Below are 14 ways that White managers can use to help employees of color cope with racial tensions, even without perfect confidence or comfort.
1. You Have to Look It in the Eye.
First, raise your awareness around the issues driving the current climate of racism, fear, hatred, rage, and exhaustion. Don’t let these issues scare you into disingenuously pretending they aren’t what they are. And what they are poses significant risk to the inclusive culture of your team if you don’t address these things head-on.
Making sheepish small talk with employees of color (POCs) may feel safe and convenient, but it’s tone-deaf, reading as apathy, indifference, or a complete disconnection from reality. Acknowledging what is happening and admitting that racism exists demonstrates your readiness to meet someone authentically where they are — even if that is scary and unfamiliar for you. The alternative, asking your POC employees to suppress their feelings to preserve your comfort, is a game of privilege. From the safety of whiteness, choosing whether or not to deal with race, its manifestations, and impacts is something you have the luxury of doing that they cannot.
2. No Message Is a Message.
You may be thinking, “Maybe it’s best to let the dust settle before making a move.” That’s normal to feel but is a mistake in execution. It will read as willful blindness and apathy. As a leader, you need to convey to the team your awareness of what’s happening around the country: the polarization, the injustice, the racism, and the fact that all of these events exact, for some perhaps more than others, a tremendous emotional toll.
Outline a clear pathway to express concerns or to seek assistance. Commit to touching base with each employee to check in and provide support as needed. When you make your rounds, use one or more of the Core Four Questions: How’s the work? How’s the team? How are you? How can I help? Use different questions or combinations of questions for different employees. For employees who may not want to or need to speak, you might ask “how’s the work?” For another employee who is clearly emotionally impacted, you might use “how can I help?” Your goal is to make sure that your employees know you are there to support them no matter where they are. Avoid avoidance. Ignoring what is so evident is hiding in privilege.
3. Reaching Out.
Do now what you would under any other circumstance of distress — check in with all of your employees, POC and White. The racial turmoil in the country (and around the world) isn’t just occurring somewhere “out there.” Racism is active and alive societally, as well as institutionally and interpersonally. Human beings don’t leave their identities, racial wounds, and worries at home. Their identities (and all that comes with them) walk into work and inform their work as well. The trauma, anxiety, fear, anger, and frustration of employees, POC and White, come in too. You need to reach out to employees of color and others, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. It just needs to convey that you are ready to support them, however they need, whenever they need.
4. The “Simplexity” of Questions
“How are you feeling?” When you are relating across culture, especially during times of distress, what is seemingly so simple can be loaded with complexity. While it’s likely that your employees of color feel something, they will not all feel the same way, be impacted the same way, or have the same opinions about what is going on. Many people of color may not know how to talk to you about these issues, feel safe going to leadership with a problem, or feel that their concerns are relatable to their peers. But you can be certain that most are experiencing pain, anger, isolation, conflict, and frustration as their racial and cultural nightmares take shape as they watch their nightly news telecasts.
Black employees in particular may be very reluctant to share their innermost feelings on racism. Having likely experienced discrimination before, accompanied by the frustration of watching some White people recognize racism for the very first time, Black employees may feel a kind of cynicism about the sincerity of White people who are reaching out to support them. For other Black employees, asking them to express themselves to you conflicts with a cultural norm they may have learned all too well: to stifle “Black emotionality.” Demonstrative anger, frustration, and pain are often discouraged as being too big, too loud, too aggressive, and off-putting to White people, who may feel threatened and in need of rescue from this perceived hostility, which is often just emotive and passionate expression. Consequently, though exhausting, many Black people have learned to construct a tough and stoic exterior at work. And still others, who may want to share with you, will look around and see that they are “An Only “ -that is, the only Black person in the room (due to too little diversity). The proposition of spilling their guts to a group within which they see little commonality can become unthinkable.
“What are you feeling” and “where are you feeling it” may be better probing questions that help a manager clarify nuanced details that may not be readily apparent. Going slowly and not pushing to any defined outcomes (except to hear your employee) are sound guardrails for managers who want to be of support but find themselves having to hold multiple truths at the same time, including what it means to be “of color,” Blackness, Whiteness, cultural knowing and ignorance, the perspective of the leader, the view of the follower, guilt and righteous indignation, historical trauma, inherited unearned advantages, their truth, your truth, shared truth, what is a fact and from whose vantage point, one employee’s grievance, another employee’s blind spot — all of this complexity swirling around at the individual level, while just underneath, the societal tumult is heating up and threatening to bubble over. Self-manage to remain open, calm, receptive, and authentic. Handle your employees with care and deep respect as you navigate these very delicate personal matters.
5. Be Explicit, Open, and Creative in Your Offer to Support.
Racial, and other current tensions are pointed issues many are dealing with; your efforts to support must be pointed and direct as well. “Are you okay” is a vague inquiry and can feel painfully detached to employees of color who are experiencing trauma and anxiety. A better approach is to be explicit about what you are offering. “Do you need to take a couple of days off” or “How can I support you on this project” are offers of support where you are providing a solution. Inquire before you take what you think are helpful moves based on assumptions. Asking “ Should we postpone or find a co-facilitator; or are you still comfortable leading the client call on Wednesday?” is better than assuming someone isn’t and pulling them off a project unnecessarily.
On the other hand, offering support without a ready-made solution can also be useful, sounding like: “I want you to know you’re a valued member of my team. And with all that’s happening right now, it’s important to me that you feel safe and supported. I don’t know what you need or if you need anything at all, just know I’m here. Just let me know how I can help. And if you’re more comfortable asking someone else, that’s fine too. Whether through me or someone else, I just want you to get what you need.” If you are in discussion with an employee of color, other effective questions are “What is it that I should understand about this” or “How do you want to be supported?” Here, you are asking, not assuming, how you can help.
These questions and statements express concern and offer assistance while allowing the employee of color to retain their agency, autonomy, and privacy. Most importantly, these questions acknowledge what is happening. Recognition of all of the unrest and turmoil of the current state of affairs is important because it conveys that you, even though you may not have the same experiences, still see and believe the impacts of what’s happening. Sometimes just being believed is, in itself, tremendous support.
Some people may not want to talk. Some will. Some may take a mental health day. Some may want more time to finish a project. Some may dive deeper into work. Facilitate the employee of color’s ability to heal on their own terms by being flexible and creative in the support you can provide. This is the time to leverage organizational resources such as crisis counseling, coaching, mental-health days via PTO (Paid Time Off), and Employee Assistance Programs (EAP).
EAP programs serve as clearing houses for numerous low/no cost employee wellness resources; and whether or not an employee uses them is confidential. If an employee wanted to seek counseling through their EAP program, there will likely be an opportunity to specify wanting a counselor of color, or one who specializes in race-related stressors. Some communities will have more access to these specialists than others. However, with therapists increasingly using teleconferencing, diverse counselors with unique specialties are becoming more common place.
6. Stay out of Your Ego.
Focus on what your outreach can do for your team, teammate, or employee, not for yourself. Reflect on what is at the core of your outreach. Is it of right intention? Or is it something else? Right intention includes wanting your team members of color to feel safe at work. Right intention includes seeing the potential trauma among your employees of color and wanting to be a resource — even though it will likely pull you way out of your comfort zone, where what to do may be ambiguous and complicated.
Making your outreach efforts about a declaration of your inclusive character, going through the motions, checking a box, or acting out performative allyship is worse than not reaching out at all. These kinds of ruses usually lack the substance needed to hold the weight of these heavy topics. Ask yourself, if there is no one to see you being “woke” or no recognition for what you want to do, would you still want to do it? If reaching out costs you sitting in discomfort, would you still want to do it? If you are unsure, be still and reflect on your readiness a little more.
7. When You Offer Support, Expect the Unexpected.
The capacity for social graces may run low when emotions run high. So be prepared, whether your employees of color choose to remain quiet or express themselves with a lot of energy and passion. Some employees may disassociate, ignore what is happening and immerse themselves in work. Others will be fixated and frozen. There is no uniform way that people manage racial trauma; every person will not have the same reaction. Your intention to create a safe space does not mean that employees of color will see or accept it as safe. Take nothing personally. The best posture is to keep an open mind about how to best support your employees based on their needs for support, not your need to give it. Forgive a lack of response to your offer, short responses, as well as very expressive ones. It’s crucial that you not dictate what is or is not racism, or what the proper reaction to trauma looks and sounds like.
8. Get Comfortable with Discomfort.
A privilege of Whiteness was once being able to choose whether or not to ignore racism. Race used to be something White folks never had to see, acknowledge, or feel if they didn’t want to. But now, racism is in everyone’s face, and it’s almost impossible to deny or even look away. The truth is that dealing with race has always been complicated, political, messy, and risky work — exponentially so if you are new to the Race conversation. To engage in it, you will have to accept that you may have to figure things out independently — at least at first. You will have to accept that you won’t get everything right. And you will have to accept that you don’t know what you don’t know. Despite your very best intentions, mistakes will happen. Navigating this work is an exercise in navigating in ambiguity.
There is no almanac on the experiences of all Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color. There is no comprehensive book, script, course, or reference that will safely and successfully guide you through your work on Race. There is no formula for responding flawlessly to every instance of oppression. Don’t make perfect the enemy of trying, stumbling, and awkwardly getting more culturally confident and competent over time and with experience. You will find that perfection isn’t the requirement; staying open and in the conversation is.
9. Stop Saying You Don’t See Color Personally and Organizationally.
You will not advance equity and inclusion from a place of intellectual dishonesty. A claim that you don’t “see color” is thinly disguised self-interest. This declaration is often intended as a way of telling POC that they are safe with you and you don’t hold any prejudicial bias — all virtuous messages, except that you have already contradicted the claim by denying what is so central to the identity of millions. What others hear is that you don’t want to deal with race and what accompanies it. To not acknowledge race is to not recognize that the skin color of Black and Brown people often comes with the toll and impact of other people’s bigotry. Saying you don’t see color is just willful blindness. It is perceived as a cop-out intended to absolve you of having to act, because you don’t have to deal with something if it’s not there.
At the organizational level, there was a time when employees never discussed race. Business etiquette forbade it, along with discussing religion and politics. With savvier and more culturally conscious consumers in the marketplace however, organizations are all but expected to take a strong and unequivocal position on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Vague, wishy-washy, nonspecific, and “colorblind” organizational messages are just as damaging as the individual claim. While “we’re all in this together” sounds nice, these messages are anemic and meaningless. They don’t resonate with employees of color, and they are powerless to drive any real positive change.
10. Get on the Same Level.
You’re in conversation with an employee of color, who says “When you’re black, you have a target on your back! And there are a lot of White folks these days with guns!” Uh-oh! Suddenly in the pit of your stomach you feel it. An accusation has been laid, and you’re triggered. But before you worriedly or defensively assert that the employee doesn’t have a target on their back with you, and you certainly don’t have a gun you plan on using on them — or anyone else for that matter, wait. It’s likely your employee is speaking at one level, and you are getting all defensive on another. First, clarify to what level your employee was referring. Were they talking about you personally (the Individual level), or were they using a metaphor to comment on what POC generally experience in the world (the societal level)? This level confusion (what’s true between you, the individual, and your employee, the individual, versus what’s true for POC in society in general) accounts for many conversations about race that break down into personal conflicts unnecessarily.
For many White people, it’s only recently that they have been engaging in the race conversation in a public way, which can be the source of a lot of discomfort, fear, and awkwardness. The mere raising of race as a topic of discussion can be anxiety-creating for many White folks, let alone when they hear something that may sound to their ears like an accusation they need to defend. First, a conversation on race isn’t anything to fear in and of itself, but awkwardness is to be expected especially if you don’t have to think about race very often. Take comfort in the fact that while race is always present, it’s not always relevant. But as soon as you finish taking that sigh of relief, you must also concede that race is (and has been) more relevant more often for some people than it is for others. For many people — Black and otherwise, race is as central to their identity as breathing is to life — and with the same significance and fragility too.
When you feel defensive, a more effective way to proceed is to clarify whether or not the POC is talking about you specifically, or about a phenomenon that takes place in general or at the societal level. When it’s clarified that the statement is said on the societal level, this is an opportunity for you to listen and learn how others who are not like you experience the same world very differently. Don’t challenge the perspective you hear. Accept it as the POC’s truth — their lived experience. It is very likely that your skin, along with other elements that make up your identity, have set you upon a unique life path — as they have for everyone.
If the conversation is about you personally, listen and take responsibility for any missteps that occurred. If you’re not sure why what was said or done was offensive, discuss it further to understand the impact your words or actions had. What you meant to happen is secondary; your intention doesn’t change the result. If someone breaks your arm (impact), but says it was an accident (intention), is your arm any less broken? Is the impact any less painful? Focus on the impact you brought. Apologize for that, and then commit to learning and doing better going forward.
11. Learning Only You Can Do.
Amid a steady diet of events rooted in racial unrest, it can be tempting (and convenient) to ask an employee of color to educate you on Blackness, bigotry, or how to process all that’s happening. Don’t do it. It is not the time to process your feelings on the murder of George Floyd, discuss why people say “Black lives matter” instead of “All lives matter,” to ask if they think you’re a racist, or absolve you of missteps you may have made before you knew better. Think about what you are doing, asking this person, a person of color, in the middle of their emotional labor, to perform yours as well. Think about how it could be perceived, White people asking people from cultures that have lived alongside them for centuries to educate them on who POC are.
A better approach is to do your own learning, your own research, your own thinking, and your own reflecting about how others who share your world may experience it very differently. Racism doesn’t just belong to people of color; racism is everyone’s work. And you have to put in your own work on race — at least initially.
Many in the Black community are overwhelmed with questions from White people who are opening their eyes to the depth and breadth of systemic racism in the U.S. and want to know more. Asking a POC to do so, however, can further burden someone who might already be wearing out their own resilience to stay functional. Making your employees of color responsible for filling in the gaps in your knowledge or experience is racial narcissism. There are innumerable books, movies, documentaries, and blogs where one can begin to learn about others’ lived experiences independently. Enter into learning conversations later, when you’ve raised your own awareness about your biases, privilege, and systemic inequality and have a more learned perspective that can both offer and take. At the beginning stages of their awareness, many people are only in a position to do the latter. Don’t use POC to do work only you can do for yourself.
12. Transformative versus Transactional Townhalls.
Poorly choreographed open-mic “Talk with the Team” meetings about race, police brutality, protesting versus rioting, white supremacy, and other polarizing topics are likely to do more harm than good. Worse yet, some employees may make full use of the forum to proclaim their colorblindness, list the number of their Black friends as evidence of allyship, and declare their support of racial harmony and deep respect for MLK and Abraham Lincoln. While seemingly positive, painting a rosy rather than realistic picture of race is a tactic deployed by some White people to avoid acknowledging pernicious structural racism — a system of privilege and oppression of which POC and White people alike are all a part, even without meaning to be. For your employees of color, this misstep will be met with a high degree of skepticism and the side-eye.
On the other hand, hosting a dialogue between employees of color, others, and a White influential senior executive can be bridge-building and highly instructive for the sponsoring leader. This kind of meeting affirms that individuals are not alone or unique in their anxiety while also demonstrating that the organization is serious about keeping its employees of color engaged.
To avoid exclusively inviting only one kind of employee, make it voluntary and be clear about who is hosting it and what it is: A CEO Townhall Addressing Societal Racism And The Impact It Has On The Organization And Employee Well-Being And Engagement. This explicit clarity will set the expectation and draw those that are interested. Behind-the-scenes, HR can be deployed to advocate for the event as a prime opportunity to dialogue directly with the CEO.
The executive should lead with and acknowledge what’s happening and its impact. Continue to say what may be true. These events put a bright light on an area the organization has taken for granted: that all employees feel welcomed and engaged. But societal events clearly demonstrate that assumption may or may not be accurate. And the organization must be more proactive and intentional to ensure that it is true. This meeting is a first step in that direction.
The executive should be very clear about the question: What can the organization do and avoid doing to ensure employees feel welcomed, respected, valued, and safe? Strong facilitation is needed to make sure that the discussion stays on that topic and doesn’t veer off into directions that aren’t helpful or self-serving. Questions and controlled expression of frustration and hurt are okay. Debating and disrespect are not. Emphasize that the most powerful contribution participants can make is problem solving.
Later, communicate appreciation and an update on Next Steps: ideas from the Townhall that will be sponsored and developed. Install a multicultural work team that includes individuals who can bring value and may have experienced a sense of helplessness. The experience can be a strategic win for the organization. And for employees who are now in a position to take action in partnership with White employees and others, the experience can be very positive and cathartic.
13. If You See It, Say It.
Challenge racist behaviors in the moment, period! Especially as the team looks on, doing so can be scary because it creates conflict. You arejudging. You are picking a side. But you also pick a side when you remain silent. You may observe, for example, employees making “jokes” about Asians and COVID-19. Call this out immediately. Remaining still and silent speaks volumes, granting the speaker permission, conveying agreement, and providing safety and cover from consequence. It also speaks to the Asian employee, saying they may be sacrificed as entertainment. And other employees with jokes, get greenlights of their own, having watched you as you stood by and allowed it. As a White colleague and leader, you witness instances of racism in the workplace. Some would walk away, comfortable knowing that they are not racist because they themselves did not make the racist statement. Nonracist it may be, but it’s also racist-permissible. In the face of racist comments and behavior, your silence permits the racism to stand, and that makes you complicit.
14. Don’t Just Talk About It, Be About It.
Your organization cannot rewrite history or heal society’s deep-rooted wounds about race, but it can clean up its own backyard. After attending to the individual needs of employees and the teams, know that there will soon be an expectation of action at the organizational level. You may be an inclusive manager, but your efforts will die in an organization that isn’t serious about its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work. It’s about being proactive. Organizations that have converted their DEI philosophizing into organizational systems and processes that manifest Equity and Belonging are much more fortified when outside stressors strike. For example:
Does every employee get coaching? Does every employee get an equal opportunity to shine? Do employees of color experience stretch assignments or gain exposure by working on strategic and high-visibility projects?
Does the organization hold leaders accountable for seeking talent of color and developing that talent for leadership roles and positions?
Does the organization have a clear position on diversity, equity, and inclusion? Has it put a stake in the ground, taken a side, and committed to being antiracist versus just nonracist?
Preexisting organizational structures that encourage the growth and development, as well as the psychological safety of employees of color, along with all other employees, lessen the impact of societal tensions when they strike.
But who should own breathing life into the DEI work of the organization? While the organization should certainly involve them (and other perspectives), do not position employees of color to take the lead in lifting organizational DEI work into existence. This effort needs the strength of organizational star-power and must be sponsored and led by the White leaders in the organization. White senior leaders can leverage their privilege to hold powerful peers across the organization accountable. White senior leaders can push DEI expectations down into all Lines of Business and across the enterprise into every manager’s performance review.
Affinity groups and Employee Resources Groups (ERGs) sponsored and run by employees of color make it too easy for White leadership to passively support and advocate from afar. It’s too convenient to make a cursory soundbite and check a box without making a sincere and hands-on commitment to the doing of DEI work. To make POC the sole and primary owners of fixing racism is saying that they cause the very racism that victimizes them personally and systemically. While anybody can be bigoted — that is, hold ugly prejudices against others — systemic racism requires power: the power to redline neighborhoods through biased lending policy; the power to bend the justice system; the power to legislate what is taught in schools or admitted into universities; the power to hire, fire, and promote; and so on. When did POC have this power? Racism requires power, so does extinguishing it. To cause positive change, White people — especially organizational power brokers, along with POC, must drive it.
Reduced to its core, attending to distracted and distressed employees (no matter what color they are) is a fundamental management skill and responsibility — but these days, with a significant complication, race. That word and the current state of the world invites, and in many ways, demands that you develop and use deeper cultural competence with confidence, meaning you’ll have to learn, respect, and hold different truths — along with your own — many of them new and uncomfortable, all at the same time. Managing these days will require learning, empathy, and actively working against racism, not just passive nonparticipation. It will often be scary and confusing. It will call for courage, self-reflection, self-awareness, and self-control. But for all of its newness and complexity, it’s still just about attending to the needs of your people — which means, at the core, your job will not have changed at all.