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Leon Kaye headshot

Proclaiming Allyship Isn’t Enough: The U.S. Workplace Needs a Reset

Many companies say they are in alliance, or allyship, with Black Americans. But in the workplace, the reality for many Black employees is starkly different.
By Leon Kaye

The Black Lives Matter protests have become an unstoppable movement. The ongoing demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd, and now Rayshard Brooks, continue to reverberate across U.S. cities and even abroad.

Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of companies proclaiming their alliance with Black Americans, and many have gone as far saying they are in allyship with the Black Lives Matter movement.

For Black employees, corporations’ deeds are far from matching words

But here’s the problem: Well-crafted public statements offer a start, but are the tiniest of baby steps. As more mainstream U.S. publications listen to Black voices, it’s clear that how we conduct ourselves in the workplace needs a complete reset, starting with the fact that we must do better to treat all colleagues as human.

Black Americans continue to make it known, however, that such change is still not their reality, as the truth is that in many cases, corporations’ human resources departments have not been up to the task.

Yesterday, Fortune magazine showcased the thoughts, feelings and observations of Black Americans not only in the corporate world, but within the nonprofit sector and academia as well. It’s difficult to summarize how Black employees feel in a few words, but a few themes emerge. Alone. Overlooked. Disrespected.

“There’s a major difference between diversity and inclusiveness. We want to not only be in the room, not only be at the table, but also contribute to the decision-making process.”

“I want you to know what it feels like to not be able to stand up for yourself or correct someone's assumption about you or your culture or community for fear of losing your job.”

“The top of nonprofits is predominantly white and male, as it is within the private sector and government; most worker bees are women (of color).”

Human resources departments are one cog in the systematic racism machine

These constant reminders show that despite public commitments to diversity and inclusion, what’s said on a company’s media relations site often does not match what Black employees feel on the job day-to-day. For many, when it came time to bring these problems to the attention of the power brokers tasked with finding a solution — as in, human resources (HR) professionals — these employees time and again confronted the fact that their experiences were more than something they felt. They were blatantly systematic. 

“Senior leadership can be the worst perpetrators of discrimination and will be protected by HR.”

“Eventually, I myself resigned because I learned I was being paid less than half of what my white colleagues earned. When I confronted HR and my manager about it, they blatantly lied to me.”

“I want you to know what it's like to be effective in your role and have the same or more credentials as your peers, but be passed over for promotions because you're ‘too serious’ or because there's a lack of connection.’”

Public gestures of allyship are not helping — and are even distracting

Companies keep saying publicly that they get it and will be at the forefront of change. One of the most visible examples of "allyship" occurred last week when Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, took a knee with some employees while visiting one of the company’s retail locations.

Such public gestures make for good photo ops. “But many black employees find them confusing, at times even laughable, because such pronouncements and headline-garnering investments are so terribly inconsistent with their firsthand experiences in workplaces that have long devalued their lives and professional contributions,” wrote Shaun Harper in the Washington Post.

What corporate executives and employees need to understand is that day after day, the problem isn’t limited to overt discrimination and racism. It’s the daily stream of microaggressions — the subtle and not-so subtle behaviors and comments directed toward Black colleagues — that must be addressed.

When it’s evident that a company’s human resources team either cannot or will not act on the problem, the effects can be devastating for Black employees. Many employees report they have felt invalidated, insulted or even verbally assaulted. One 2019 report concluded that almost 60 percent of Black employees in the U.S. had such experiences in the workplace, with the outcome that, at any given moment, Black employees have indicated they are 30 percent more likely to leave their jobs than their white counterparts.

As one Forbes writer explained last month, a common outcome that occurs when Black employees are made to feel as the “only” or “other” is one of the worst feelings any human being could feel: a sense that they are alone.

No human should be made to feel that way, ever. But it’s clear too many Black employees feel they must endure such an environment in offices across America. If a company’s human resources department is still turning a blind eye, then it’s time to rethink the purpose of what these professionals do. It’s obvious too many U.S. workplaces are still an alienating, unwelcoming place. A company’s CEO may set the tone or vision, but it’s up to human resources to ensure all employees feel valued. 

It’s just not enough for companies to “stand with Black Americans.” They need to take bolder action so that all employees can stand beside each other, as equals.

Image credit: Hunter Newton/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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