HR’s Role in Advancing Equity in Times of Unrest

June 04, 2020

Contributor: Lauren Romansky

Amid widespread protests against racism, HR leaders must acknowledge the emotional toll on employees and create safe spaces for candid conversation.

Amid an ever-widening public conversation about race, equity and justice, we are all processing emotions. But as corporate citizens and HR leaders, we have to consider more than our own feelings; we must be ready to empathize with and respond to the reactions, frustrations and concerns of our employees, managers, leaders and communities.

In the U.S., the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have ignited demonstrations across the country. These protests have brought the highly charged issues of police violence, systemic racism and its impact on black people and others of color in America to the forefront of the public consciousness once again. 

“ Show your organization’s willingness to engage in difficult conversations about respect, rights, equity and systemic change”

In this moment, where organizations have made public commitments to diversity and equitable treatment for all employees — and their actions are now transparent and scrutinized — it has never been more important for organizations to clearly and loudly commit anew to their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategies.

Immediately, the role of the HR leader is to acknowledge authentically the impact of these events on employees, especially black employees, and to show your organization’s willingness to engage in difficult conversations about respect, rights, equity and systemic change. 

In personal interactions and organizational communications, HR leaders should emphasize three things: Empathy, allyship and action. 

Download Now: Solutions and Templates for HR Leaders

No. 1: Demonstrate empathy in everything

Publicly acknowledge the hurt, anger and emotional turmoil many employees are facing. Don’t be the organization with a void of deafening silence. Help senior leaders craft messages that articulate the company’s values of diversity and inclusion (D&I) in an authentic way. 

Even with senior leadership support, managers need to be available to employees as well. HR leaders can provide guidance to managers to enable psychological safety.

Advice to managers:

  • Open conversations authentically and ask questions so as to understand the situation from the employee’s perspective. Don’t make assumptions, jump to conclusions or change the subject. 
  • Pay attention to tone of voice, body language and context to gauge how colleagues are feeling as they speak with you and their teammates.
  • Don’t rush to give advice or offer solutions. Seek to understand before you are understood. If someone shares a fear or challenge, resist the urge to suggest a premature fix.
  • Expect that some employees may not want to or be yet ready to discuss recent events. 

No. 2: Demonstrate proactive allyship 

Proactively create safe spaces to discuss how this crisis is affecting your organization and workforce, and provide employees with guidance on how to have courageous conversations. Work with employee resource groups (ERGs) to host learning sessions. 

Provide managers with resources on allyship and antiracism that they can learn from and share with their teams, and amplify credible business leaders who are confident and competent discussing their experiences being underrepresented or an ally but don’t create an expectation that underrepresented groups on your team are the only advocates and teachers. 

Realize that any ERG can help create safe spaces, not just those with a race or ethnicity orientation. Hold leaders and managers accountable for allyship and D&I outcomes. 

Learn More: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Resource Center

No. 3: Demonstrate action for the long term 

Give employees and managers guidance on how to demonstrate inclusive behaviors and have courageous conversations today, but take action to productively improve inclusion in the workplace in the long term. Employees may appreciate statements today, but may also be skeptical or wary of what will come. 

Work with ERGs to identify opportunities for connecting with impacted communities. Ask senior leaders and managers to highlight existing programs or partnerships to advance diversity, equity and inclusion.

Shortly, the focus will turn from event response and acknowledgment to how, in practice, you build more inclusive leadership, embed DEI values in your talent and business processes, and commit to driving systemic change. But don’t be paralyzed by expectations of such change.

Acknowledge the impact these traumatic events have on your employees, then aim for lasting change to business and talent processes — and, along the way, commit to finding ways to talk and listen about the future.

Lauren Romansky launched the Gartner Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Leadership Council in 2016 and manages the D&I key initiative. She leads the teams researching employee experience, HR function management and strategy and D&I. She also speaks frequently with heads of D&I and has authored numerous studies and implementation support initiatives around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategy and trends globally.

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