Juneteenth is approaching, and now that President Joe Biden has made it a federal holiday, a lot of workplaces will be closed, giving employees a day off. While this is a step forward, Juneteenth should not be the only day to celebrate Black contributions to the company (and the world), but also acknowledge, reflect, and re-commit to doing better for Black employees and make the workplace more inclusive and safe year-round.
The last two years have been extremely difficult for everyone. But the combined effect of structural racism means the Black community has felt some of the sharpest impacts. Even as the economy continues to add more jobs, the recent May Jobs Report showed that the U.S. unemployment rate for Black women rose sharply to 5.9 percent from 5 percent in April, and with inflation increasing on necessities such as food and gas and fears of another recession around the corner, marginalized communities will be the hardest hit.
In its third year, the pandemic has now claimed the lives of over a million Americans. The coronavirus grimly demonstrated what many feared: As a result of systemic racism in healthcare, more Black and Native Americans died per 100,000 affected than any other race in the country. Black communities were more vulnerable because of the high proportion of Black people working low-wage jobs that require being on the front lines, increasing exposure to the virus, and with no option to work remotely or take other social distancing precautions available to more privileged individuals.
And then there’s the violence Black communities face every day. Racist, vicious, hate-fueled attacks against Black people keep happening. Including most recently the Buffalo mass shooting at a grocery store that left 10 people dead, and the two-year anniversary just passed of the infamous murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day weekend that sparked protests around the world.
I’ve worked at tech and startup companies for almost a decade, but in the past few years, I have found it incredibly difficult to always do my job well, given these external factors. It was hard to focus and fully show up at work. Managers and leadership teams need to be cognizant of the trauma that Black people are bringing to work with them. Below are four simple solutions your workplace can implement to improve internal policies and systems to help close these gaps for Black team members.
4 Ways to Support Black Employees Year-Round
My 4 Recommendations to Companies for Supporting Black Employees
- Hiring a lot of Black employees isn’t enough if the structures for inclusion and belonging at work aren’t strong enough.
- Conduct a compensation audit to ensure that Black people are being paid the same for their work as their white counterparts. If a disparity is revealed, fix it. Immediately.
- Be flexible and generous with allowing much-needed time off, and respect boundaries Black colleagues set around their identity and their work life.
- True change needs to come from the top, with the chief executive’s commitment to change and the subsequent hiring of more Black employees into leadership positions.
1. “Let’s Hire More Black People” Is Not a Solution. Working On Inclusion Is.
The tech and VC industry is known for its lack of diversity. Even after all of the pledges and promises to improve, most tech companies still remain predominantly white and male. As workplaces try to diversify internally, it’s important to note that hiring a ton of Black employees will not solve the bigger problem, inclusion, which is what’s really keeping Black people from progressing at work. Inclusion is oftentimes wrongly associated with diversity. Just because you hire a ton of Black people doesn’t mean that they are included in the spaces to grow and develop at work. Black workers need opportunity and integration to ensure we are in the same room as the decision makers. The majority of tech and Fortune 500 companies have very few Black people in C-Suite, advisory, or leadership positions. And if a Black employee is in a senior role, chances are it’s to oversee DE&I, which is not enough to solve the problem.
It’s important that startups understand that systemic barriers lead to constant turnover at work. I’m sure a lot of Black people like myself have jumped from job to job because of this. Feeling limited in my career growth and development made me question why I was giving so much time and effort into a job that couldn’t and wouldn’t reciprocate. If your company is reading this and you notice you don't have any Black people in C-Suite positions, that’s a problem worth looking into. If you’re looking around and noticing that your company has very few Black employees in roles beyond DE&I, customer support, and administrative tasks, there are platforms like Jopwell that specialize in advancing and placing Black talent at tech companies — use them.
2. Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is and Close the Racial Pay/Wealth Gap
Stat after stat show inequity in the workplace as Black employees are paid significantly less than their white counterparts. Tech companies know that this is a problem but have not yet taken the meaningful steps to ensure that Black employees are paid fairly, and have the same opportunities to receive raises and promotions year-round. I started to talk openly about my salary with my colleagues for transparency purposes. A few times I realized that I was being paid less for doing the same — if not more — work than colleagues. If I brought it up with a manager and asked for more money, I was almost always told no. Shortly afterwards, I would update my resume and start interviewing for other positions outside of the company. Know your worth!
3. Give Black Employees Space and Time
Your Black employees are exhausted and need to recover. Stop forcing unnecessary meetings, calls, and deadlines, and instead create a work environment that prioritizes mental health and well-being. It’s critical that workplaces have resources to support coping and healing. Offer paid time off in a way that supports “Calling in Black.” It’s important that Black employees are prioritizing rest — so please avoid sending us late night emails and Slack messages because they will get ignored. I personally started to say “no” at work to set boundaries even if they weren’t received well. Being open and honest about your space and time to your manager is crucial and if they can’t understand and continue bombarding you with emails, then you should consider finding a new employer. That’s exactly what I did. I resigned from a six-figure job, but before I did, I used up all my PTO, because nothing — definitely not a job — is worth more than your mental health.
4. Change Needs to Start With Leadership
Meaningful change needs to start at the top. If leadership doesn’t change, then nothing will. The CEO has to commit to resources that address unconscious bias, diversity and inclusion, and equal pay at work. It’s up to them to admit any shortcomings and make the effort to have their leadership team be representative of the workforce. The majority of tech and startup companies lack diversity in key leadership positions. It’s hypocritical that so many tech companies’ mission statements claim to value accessibility, affordability, and being geared for everyone. However, their workforce doesn’t come close to reflecting that. If you look at your leadership team, your board, or key stakeholders and none are Black, well that might indicate that you have a problem. These problems usually can’t be fixed internally when it comes to leadership — so hire an external expert to help drive and measure the change.
There are so many ways that your startup can step up to support its current and future Black employees. These are just a few suggestions that you can get started on today. So go ahead, post on social media if likes and followers mean more to you then your actual diversity numbers, you still don’t have any Black people on your leadership team, and you haven’t fulfilled your promises from last year’s social media post. But if supporting Black employees really matters to you, then take the necessary steps by investing in resources to ensure that your workplace is as inclusive as you make it appear on social media.