Providing bereavement leave is one way companies can support black employees right now
Amid nationwide protests over the killing of black men and women by law enforcement, the freelancing platform Upwork is offering bereavement leave to its black employees. “This is not the normal PTO. This is not mental health. These are losses,” says Erin Thomas, the company’s head of diversity, inclusion, and belonging.
Providing this specific kind of paid leave is one way Upwork has tried to show support for its black workers after George Floyd died at the hands of law enforcement in Minneapolis. Thomas shared the approach during a virtual gathering, where members of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women community convened on Wednesday to discuss racism and allyship in the United States. Thomas was joined by other business leaders and activists for the discussion, which was led by Fortune’s Ellen McGirt.
Below are four ways companies should respond and support their black employees right now, according to the MPW panelists:
Focus on black belonging
The first priority for any company right now, Thomas said, should be supporting its black employees—a goal that many companies have fallen short of achieving in recent days.
“A lot of these messages don’t center on what black employees are going through right now,” Thomas said of the corporate communications that some employers have sent out this week. “It’s incredibly important to focus on black belonging—the sense that your black team members feel a sense of solidarity from corporate leaders and everyone around them.” For a company trying to adequately respond to this societal movement, she said, everything else should come second right now.
Recognize your power
EY U.S. chair and Americas managing partner Kelly Grier offered a frank reflection on the consulting firm’s level of influence—and how the $36.4 billion company has chosen to use that power in the past.
“The services we bring, our purchasing power, our voice in D.C.—we have not used any of that power to address the systemic injustice of racism in this country,” she said. “That has to change.”
Grier is working to help her company acknowledge the power of its privilege on an institutional level in the same way white people and nonblack people of color are recognizing theirs as individuals.
Companies, overall, should reflect on their role in the country’s history of racism and oppression, Thomas added. “Hopefully we are waking up to realize companies are both by-products of and mechanisms for perpetuating the systemic inequity we’re seeing,” she said.
Make room for mistakes
There isn’t much room for companies to make mistakes while responding to this moment. But individuals can—and will. Leadership should make room for their nonblack employees to make those errors while having these discussions, the group agreed. At Cisco, managers are trying to support employees in having “imperfect conversations” about racism and discrimination, said chief people officer Fran Katsoudas.
At EY, the company’s “white majority feels quite helpless,” added Grier. Company leaders should encourage white employees to push past those feelings of helplessness—to support black employees who, more important, feel “traumatized, numb, anxious, and fearful,” she said.
While communicating to employees and the wider world, corporate leaders should remain authentic, said Crystal Ashby, CEO of the Executive Leadership Council. What that doesn’t look like, Ashby said, is rote discussion of programs like diversity initiatives. While the diversity of an organization is certainly a reflection of the treatment of black Americans in the United States, such programs do not necessarily provide companies with the right toolkit to respond to police brutality against black people.
“This response can’t seem like a diversity program. This response can’t seem like something on a checklist. It can’t seem like they’re doing it for that reason or it’s no longer real,” said Ashby.
Corporate America must ultimately remember: It’s not about them. “This is not an issue about companies,” Ashby said. “This is an issue about people.”
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