Black Lives Matter: Employers urged to take a stand against racism

Activists gathered with placards at Trafalgar Square during the George Floyd demonstration.
David Cliff / SOPA Images/Sipa USA/PA Images

HR professionals are being advised to “check in” with their employees and do their best to accommodate annual leave requests to attend demonstrations as the Black Lives Matter movement gains traction and further protests are planned across the UK.

Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota last week, thousands across the globe have taken part in protests against widespread inherent racism and the way black people have been treated by police officers in the US and beyond. Floyd, a black man, died after a white police officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down, despite him telling officers he could not breathe.

The police officer has since been dismissed and has been charged with third degree murder and manslaughter.

As well as the protests across the US, thousands of protesters broke social distancing regulations to gather in Trafalgar Square for a “Kneel for Floyd” protest on Sunday, while hundreds marched through Peckham and Brixton on Monday. Thousands supporting the Black Lives Matter movement are expected to take part in a demonstration in London’s Hyde Park today (3 June).

Businesses across the globe have taken to social media to issue statements about their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, while employers and employees of all ethnicities are being urged to challenge racist incidents.

The CIPD issued a statement on Twitter that urged HR professionals to prioritise diversity and inclusion and “check in” with staff. It said: “Racism has no place in our society. We have been talking to our people and gathering our thoughts at the CIPD in what has been a difficult and emotional few days. People are hurting and as a colleague put it ‘we are not ok’.

“We as individuals and organisations have a responsibility to ensure that no person is treated differently because of their skin, race, religion or gender. One of our key focuses in championing better work and working lives is ensuring diversity and inclusion remains top of all organisations’ agendas.

“Our advice to businesses is to talk to their people right now – check in with them. We will be working with our colleagues to develop more activity that moves things beyond conversation and into action.”

However, the statement received a mixed response from HR professionals on Twitter, with some criticising the CIPD’s stance as “weak” and “generic”.

Psychologist John Amaechi, challenged individuals to “embrace the wince” and stand up against racist incidents.

He told Good Morning Britain: “You’ve got to realise that it’s not enough to be not racist – you need to be vehemently, proactively anti-racist.”

Employees are watching how their organisation responds to the movement and the events of the past week closely. An Instagram poll conducted by networking group Black & HR found 77% of respondents said their workplace had not addressed what had been happening in the black community.

Starbucks, which conducted anti-bias training in the US after two black men were arrested in a store last year, said colleagues had been invited to a virtual forum to share stories and express emotions about racial injustices. Some two thousand employees joined the call.

“As we all deal with our personal feelings and experiences through this, there are important questions in front of us. How can we help each other heal, and how can we contribute to society in a positive and constructive way on the topic of racism and injustice?,” said Kevin Johnson, Starbucks CEO and president.

Meanwhile, Facebook employees have staged a “virtual walkout” after chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s decision not to hide the Facebook version of a Donald Trump tweet in which the US president appeared to encourage police to shoot rioters. Twitter has hid the message behind a warning.

Time off for demonstrations

With the likelihood that some employees will want to join in with Black Lives Matter demonstrations planned across the UK – further protests are being planned in Birmingham and Manchester – employment lawyer Mary Goldsbrough from Capital Law said employers should consider relaxing usual policies for annual leave to show support for employees’ beliefs.

“Many employees may request annual leave to enable them to attend. Ordinarily, employees should give employers notice which is twice the length of the period of leave they have requested. However, as some BLM events are organised at short notice, employers may wish to consider authorising leave requests on shorter notice to demonstrate understanding of the employee’s cause and, possibly, their own support for the BLM movement,” said Goldsbrough.

Employers might consider allowing staff to take unpaid leave if they have used their annual leave entitlement, or updating their corporate social responsibility policies to allow for a certain amount of paid time away from the workplace to attend events such as the BLM protests.

She reminded organisations that they have the right to withhold pay or consider disciplinary action if an employee is absent without permission, but said they would need to justify why any request for leave was refused to avoid discrimination claims.

“Employers should adopt a consistent approach to requests from employees to attend such events and to dealing with any unauthorised absence. The approach taken should be applied equally and consistently across the business to avoid claims of discrimination,” said Goldsbrough.

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