How U.S. Companies Can Support Employees of Color Through the Pandemic
While there’s plenty of rhetoric about how we’re all in the Covid-19 pandemic together, the fallout clearly shows that we are not in the same boat. The direct impact on Black and brown communities in the U.S. is staggering, both from a physical and mental health perspective. Employers can help support their employees of color and their communities in three key ways: on the individual level, by asking specific questions about how to provide support and making room for people to care for themselves; on the organizational level, by setting up communication, hiring, and benefits systems that support employees of color; and on the societal level, by focusing corporate giving and political action toward communities of color.
The impact of Covid-19 has been felt in homes and workplaces across the globe. Although there’s plenty of rhetoric about how we’re all in this together, the fallout from the pandemic clearly shows that we are not in the same boat. The direct impact of Covid-19 on Black and brown communities in the U.S. is staggering.
From a health perspective, it’s clear that Black and brown workers and their families are suffering unequally. Pre-existing conditions coupled with inequitable access to health care services are contributing to rising cases among Native American nations and a disproportionate number of deaths in Black and Latinx communities.
Black and brown workers are overrepresented on the front lines as “essential” workers in low-status, low-wage service occupations in the U.S. Their greater exposure increases vulnerability of contracting and dying from the disease. This dynamic showcases the longstanding reality of occupational segmentation, as certain demographic segments have the privilege of “sheltering” in protected environments (i.e., working from home), while others remain exposed in more dangerous and lower paying roles.
Covid-19 has also exposed heightened Anti-Asian racism in the U.S., where Asians and Asian Americans have been targeted with racial slurs and assaults in workplaces and public spaces. New databases indicate more than 1,700 reports of hate crimes and xenophobic rhetoric targeted towards Asians in America since mid-March. Psychologists have attributed increases in racial scapegoating to the conditions of fear and blame created by a crisis; in this case, Asians have been blamed for the spread of the virus because of its origins in Wuhan, China, further perpetuated by media and diplomatic labeling of Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus.”
So while all employees are likely grieving from losses incurred by this crisis, these disparities make clear that the impact may be felt more acutely among racial and ethnic minority workers. Black and brown employees and their families are not only overrepresented in vulnerable occupations; they are also vulnerable to trauma from racial inequalities outside of work, which are compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. Prior research indicates that firsthand and vicarious exposure to police brutality, ICE raids, separation of families at the border, and immigration bands deteriorate Black and brown workers’ engagement at work, especially when they feel unable to discuss societal racism and its effects on their well-being. The impact of Covid-19 disparities may similarly impact work engagement among employees of color.
Further, the astonishing numbers of people of color who are dying from Covid-19 include faith and community leaders and trailblazers who overcame racism, poverty, and other obstacles before succumbing to coronavirus. Research shows that leaders of color must “beat the odds” to advance to leadership roles and advocate on behalf of those who are less fortunate. The recent Covid-19 losses of Black and brown leaders represent the loss of role models, guides, and advocates, which is costly for organizations who lack successors among leaders of color.
Clearly, this pandemic has unearthed and magnified inequities that are structural and systemic. This means that individual grit and willpower alone are insufficient forces for countering the impact of the coronavirus on Black and brown employees. Because of this, managers and company leaders have an important role to play in engaging Black, brown, and other marginalized employees, acting as an important layer of support. Further, companies can bolster Black and brown members of the broader community as well. Equipped with social consciousness and compassion, leaders across levels can validate, affirm and support people of color in three important ways — at the team, organizational, and societal levels.
At the team level, humanize the workplace with more meaningful one-on-one and team interactions.
Leaders can demonstrate care for employees of color by supporting them across multiple layers of identity — from their racial identities to other specific individual needs. These practices can help you learn how to best support all employees coping in this pandemic as well.
Be proactive and specific when asking how you can best provide support. To better understand your employees’ needs, go beyond a casual “How are you?” and start asking specific questions about their well-being. (“How are you, really?” Or “Are you getting enough sleep?”) Also directly ask what you or your organization can do to support their unique needs. (“What additional resources do you need right now?” Or “Is there something the company can do to make your life easier?”) Asking questions in this manner allows you to hone in on how best to help, and it can reveal gaps in organizational resources and programs that may need to be ramped up.
Make room for people to care for themselves. The number of people experiencing psychological trauma typically exceeds those with physical injury by as much as 40 to 1 during global disasters. And yet employees may be reluctant to ask for time off or other accommodations during a crisis, as work becomes busier or more unpredictable, and they try to avoid being seen as less than essential workers. That’s why they need leaders to give them explicit permission to take time to care for themselves and their loved ones and find ways to cope with direct and vicarious trauma. To do this, prioritize work tasks frequently and aggressively so employees can focus on what is most urgent and important. The rest of their time and energy should be spent taking care of themselves and their loved ones.
Challenge biased, racist, and xenophobic behaviors in the moment — especially in team settings. With the rise of fear and anxiety, you may observe employees making “jokes” or flippant comments about the outbreak that are rooted in Anti-Asian bias and xenophobic beliefs. We recently heard of a virtual workplace gathering (in none of our organizations) during which an employee discussed buying protective masks that were made in China. Two of their colleagues then proceeded to joke about how the masks were likely infected from the “China virus.” When left unaddressed, these insidious comments and behaviors become permissible and normalized in workplace culture. Make it a point to intervene in the moment by challenging underlying biases and assumptions. (“What made you say that?” Or “That’s not funny and you need to stop.”)
At the organizational level, provide tailored support for employees who are most impacted.
This involves building company camaraderie while also acknowledging disparate experiences and impacts. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to creating an inclusive and psychologically safe culture. Even in the best of times, diffused diversity efforts tend to overlook black and brown contributors or even disadvantage them. But given the clear data that this virus does, in fact, discriminate against black and brown Americans, it’s even more pressing than before that leaders be specific when acknowledging and naming the issues facing particular communities.
Avoid colorblind company communications that minimize the disproportionate strain on employees of color. Although statements like “We’re all in this together” or “This is a great equalizer” feel unifying, colorblind messaging generally fails to resonate with employees of color and has been shown to impede actual performance. A line from one of the weekly Covid-19 emails at Upwork, where Erin leads diversity, inclusion and belonging, provides an example of how to uplift all employees while also earmarking the distinct experiences of Black and brown workers:
Counties in both the Bay Area and Illinois have issued orders mandating that residents over the age of 12 must wear face masks when interacting with others who are not members of their household in public and private spaces starting at noon Wednesday, April 22nd. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is difficult to purchase during this time, so we have added resources to our intranet site. To our Black and brown team members, we are troubled by the fact that wearing PPE is a risk unto itself, and also want to equip all who choose to wear masks with the knowledge to do so.
Create intentional spaces to uncover the experiences, sentiments, and needs of employees of color. In April, Upwork partnered with Awaken to design a forum to address the Covid 19-related uptick of anti-Asian racism and discrimination. Two of us (Erin and Michelle) partnered with the leadership of Upwork’s Pan-Asian Employee Resource Group to highlighted the real stories of Upwork’s Asian employees. This authentic conversation generated urgency around what these employees and their loved ones were experiencing, and it motivated and inspired the rest of the company to ally with their Asian colleagues. The forum also educated employees on the science and history of bias and equipped them with concrete tactics to disrupt their own biases and call out xenophobia in others.
Analyze and expand mental health benefits and resources that will aid employees who are experiencing trauma and grief. This process should include an audit of your current bereavement and leave policies, giving HR and manager tools for supporting grieving employees, and assessing how culturally informed Employee Assistance Program and in-network therapists are. Starbucks is one of several employers who are expanding their mental health benefits by providing employees and their families with 20 free sessions of therapy or coaching per year.
Audit the diversity and equity implications of all talent decisions (layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts). Research from Alexandra Kalev shows that black and brown employees are more likely to be laid off due to their disproportionate concentration in lower-level positions. To assess whether that is — or is in danger of — happening at your company Kalev recommends several strategies including keeping track of your layoff lists, taking stock of performance more than position, and cross-training and upskilling workers.
Hire with urgency and an equitable process, with a specific focus on laid off and furloughed individuals. As mass layoffs and furloughs occur, some companies are sharing lists of ex-employees to aid the employment process in their next role. If you are able to hire right now, consider expediting your typical protocols to help others secure employment more efficiently than ever. Ensure your hiring process is designed with equity in mind to take advantage of the currently available talent pool, which includes a large number of people of color.
At the societal level, bolster external communities.
The call to action for businesses to show up for Black and brown communities is more pronounced than ever. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has long been considered a strategic differentiator for many businesses, aiding in brand reputation and employees’ sense of purpose and morale. There is no shortage of opportunities available for organizations to rise to the occasion.
Redirect corporate giving to local organizations impacted by the economic crisis. Companies including Salesforce, Verizon, and Facebook announced emergency relief funds for small businesses, while some are launching efforts to provide relief for minority-owned small businesses. Long before shelter-in-place orders went in effect, small businesses owned by Asians and storefronts located in Chinatowns nationwide saw a drastic dip in patronage. Black and brown business owners continue to face biases from banking institutions, so direct funding efforts are needed now more than ever to support individuals facing a higher risk of institutional discrimination. If you are not in a position of power to influence or enact corporate giving, you can still make a difference by sharing lists of local organizations people can volunteer with or donate to or encouraging your company leadership to consider matching donations.
Consider public action to accelerate legal measures and policies that support the most vulnerable populations. There is a growing public expectation of business leaders to take a stand on important social and cultural issues that impact society at large. From PwC Chairman Tim Ryan’s memo condemning the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville to Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff’s public denouncing of anti-LGBTQ legislation, we have seen leaders of reputable companies put out public statements to accelerate social change that require governmental and societal-level support. In light of the disparate and deadly impact of Covid-19 on Black and brown employees, business leaders have an opportunity to take a bold stand on creating systemic safety nets that can benefit the most vulnerable in our society today. These could include advocating for expanded unemployment benefits, small business economic relief programs, and police accountability during a time of heightened policing.
This pandemic calls for courageous leadership rooted in empathy, compassion, and social consciousness. Now is the time to stress test the integrity of corporate values and actualize the mantra of “bring your whole selves to work.” The experiences of employees of color are not special interests or adjacent details to the story of how organizations respond to this moment in history. Rather, centering and uplifting employees and communities of color can define our organizational footprints for generations to come. Doing so has always been important; it is now more urgent now than ever before. If our free content helps you to contend with these challenges, please consider subscribing to HBR. A subscription purchase is the best way to support the creation of these resources.
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