Black Lives Matter: How to turn empathy into action

Derby County player Colin Kazim-Richards raises his fist as Millwall fans boo at players taking a knee
Joe Toth/BPI/Shutterstock

After fans booed players for taking a knee at the weekend, Millwall Football Club has vowed to work with anti-racism charities to be ‘a force for good’. Six months after employers voiced their initial support for the Black Lives Matter movement, how can they turn their words into action, asks Esther Langdon. 

The reaction by Millwall football fans as they booed players for taking a knee this weekend – at the first game to be attended by spectators after weeks of lockdown restrictions – shows that we are far from eradicating racism in society.

Yet six months ago, the anti-racism protests which ensued from George Floyd’s killing in May 2020 felt for many like a real turning point in tackling racism, not just in the US but across the globe.

Before this, many businesses had shied away from taking a stance so directly and publicly on matters in the news, including racism – but not this time.

There was a proliferation of public statements of outrage at the killing and public commitments to do better. Many businesses felt that doing nothing this time was not an option and the view that “silence is complicity” was expressed.

As we move into 2021, the need for employers to take a stand in these global conversations will continue, and likely intensify. How have the symbolic gestures of outrage against racism made in the summer progressed into meaningful action, and what happens when the conversation becomes difficult?

Taking a stand

Much of the force from the statements made over the summer came from seeing businesses taking a clear stand, even at risk of offending, or losing customers.
Fast forward to Christmas, and the way in which one of this year’s Christmas adverts from Sainsbury’s was received shows us that taking a stand can’t be a one-off event, but requires continuing action.

For Sainsbury’s the simple fact of showing a black family hoping to spend Christmas together led to racist comments on social media, with threats to boycott the supermarket.

Sainsbury’s released a statement in response, reaffirming its commitment to being the most inclusive retailer, and Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Iceland, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Waitrose came out in support, with the hashtag #StandAgainstRacism.

It is clear that businesses should expect to continue to be judged on their efforts, and how outspoken they are prepared to be, as we move forwards.

The trial of the police officers charged in George Floyd’s death is due to take place in March of next year, and can be expected to generate massive public interest. Employers should expect the spotlight to be shone on whether they have lived up to bold statements made in the summer.

All talk, no action?

Nothing is more demoralising for a workforce than to feel its employer may join the herd in making the right noises, but fails to live up to those standards when it comes to its own affairs.

Bringing about meaningful change means going beyond a statement affirming the business’s commitment to equal opportunities and a generalised dedication to fostering a welcoming, inclusive and safe environment.

The anti-racism protests in 2020 may have moved the dial and caused a psychological shift for employers, moving beyond considering the possibility that racial inequality exists in its workplace, to an acknowledgment that it does, and onto how to tackle it.

These issues can’t be over-simplified, and often the strongest leaders recognise that they do not have all the answers.”

This needs to be reflected in a constant, and constantly evolving, corporate discussion, supported and championed by HR in short term, medium term and longer-term responses.

Open dialogue

Making this discussion effective within the workforce needs skill and sensitivity, acknowledging that it is happening in what is already a difficult and febrile time and recognising that we all have our own reactions and responses to the global conversation.

These issues can’t be over-simplified, and often the strongest leaders recognise that they do not have all the answers, but demonstrate a commitment to the discussion, on a lasting and ongoing basis, and to do what is needed to gain trust and build bonds.

In acknowledging that they don’t have all the answers, employers may also need to accept that parts of the workforce won’t support its position, but that this is part of moving the conversation forward and of taking a stand.

Just as Sainsbury’s faced fury and accusations of “virtue signalling” online, looking inwards, employers will need to accept that parts of its workforce will not welcome or support its efforts, and may even be hostile to them.

Reports emerged in September that 40 Conservative MPs had refused to undertake unconscious bias training, and many senior figures have made claims online doubting that unconscious bias even exists.

Employers will need to show leadership but also sensitivity in handling these kinds of situations, without watering down their commitment to change.

Ways to take action

Fundamentally, turning empathy into real action here will look different for different employers and will require action not statement.

Employers who really want to seize the initiative should be brave and look at all areas of the employment relationship, and consider actions such as:

  • how to encourage and facilitate conversations about race;
  • overhauling the business’ whistleblowing/speak-up culture;
  • proactively encouraging people to speak up/call out racism and identifying appropriate channels for this (for example, a hotline);
  • setting diversity as key performance indicator;
  • establishing reverse mentoring initiatives;
  • ensuring transparency (on reward and recognition and on career pathways);
  • stress-testing current processes to see if they are fit to deal robustly with concerns or allegations of racism; undertaking “cultural” investigations and diversity and inclusion reviews and audit; and
  • committing to voluntary ethnic pay reporting; and involving external and independent third parties.

These are examples only. For all employers, being part of the movement of tackling injustice and achieving a diverse and inclusive workforce requires concrete and continual action.

Seizing the impetus of the current global discussions may not always be the easy option but workforces – as well as customers, investors and shareholders – are increasingly demanding leadership from the top on these issues.

Employers that are confident in their core values should not just be making the occasional reactive public statement, but be encouraging difficult conversations and thinking of ways to create safe spaces for their workforce to talk about race, and about racism.

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