How HR teams can support their Black employees right now

HR supporting Black employees conversation

It’s understandable that many HR professionals may feel completely overwhelmed and unsure of their role in, where to start with, and how to best approach supporting their Black employees. To help gather some insights during this historic moment of growing awareness and change, we sat down with our Sr. Director of Diversity, Equity, and Belonging at Ultimate Software and Kronos Cara Pelletier, for a two-part Q&A series. 

Meet Cara Pelletier, MA

Cara Pelletier Sr Director Diversity, Equity, and Belonging at Ultimate and Kronos

Role: Sr. Director, Diversity, Equity, and Belonging at Ultimate Software and Kronos

Pronouns: She, her

Specialties: Diversity, Equity, and Belonging, Leadership Development, Organizational Culture, Leading Through Change, Organizational Design, Talent Strategy, Curriculum Development, Classroom and Virtual Facilitation

Q&A part 1: What HR can do now

In this first installment, we get Cara's expert advice on how HR can actively support their Black employees right now, and in our second installment we discuss how HR can establish long-term strategies to continue to support their organization’s Black employees and spark lasting change.

Rachel Rapoza (RR): What role do you think HR plays in supporting Black employees during this time?

Cara Pelletier (CP): So much. One of the biggest things that I think HR leaders need to be doing right now is thinking about how do you support the people leaders at your organization as they're trying to have conversations with the people on their teams? Because there are a lot of leaders out there who may have never talked about the issues of race or racism, violence, or protests in the past.

There are leaders who are having really well-intended but really awful conversations with people.

And so what we've heard is that there are leaders who are having really well-intended, but really awful, conversations with people. Because, you know, they're trying to express their concern for the folks on their team, but they don't really know how to say it in a way that's helpful. Leaders can sometimes go into a conversation with good intentions and wind up making the situation worse.

For example, if they get into a debate about what's happening politically or maybe they have some untested assumptions about how race comes up at work. So they may start off well, but it doesn't end well.

One of the things that we did at Kronos and Ultimate when George Floyd’s death sparked this most recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests at the beginning of June was put together a guide for our leaders on how to have these conversations that included very clear subjects to touch on. Here are some examples:

  • How to open the conversation:
    • I want to let you know that I am here for you if you'd like to talk. What can I do to support you?
    • How are you taking care of yourself right now?
    • How can I shift your priorities this week so it feels more manageable? How can I help make your job easier in this time?
  • Some things that you might say if the conversation becomes uncomfortable:
    • Thank you for trusting and sharing this with me.
    • I can't imagine what you are going through, but know that I hear you, I value you as a person, and I want to help in any way that I can.
    • I will never fully understand, but I will do my best to stay informed, learn, and take action.
  • Questions not to ask:
    • What do you think about this issue? Do you agree?
    • Can you explain why this is happening?
    • Can you explain your experience?

Ultimately, following this guide they would be able to have a conversation that has the intended impact – to express concern and care about their employees and have it make the problem better, not worse.

RR: Agreed, HR’s role is critical as we have these conversations. So what are some of the most effective strategies or ways HR can support their Black employees immediately, in the short term?

CP: For some companies, this is the first time in their history where they feel like they are being pressured, or almost demanded, to have a stance on this issue. So when HR reaches out to employees to express concern, to open a dialogue, or to provide employees an opportunity to share their feedback and emotions, it can be very much like taking the lid off a can of soda that you just shook. Because if you have never had these conversations as an organization, there are probably lots of things that you don't know that have been happening in the culture of your company.

In fact, in a recent conversation with one of our customers, I told them that they should be prepared to come out of those conversations almost feeling like you just got hit by a truck – because they’re about to see a whole bunch of things that they haven't seen before.

So I think that HR really needs to be leading the conversation to understand where their company is as an organization.

RR: And, on the flip side, is there anything HR should avoid doing?

CP: As far as what to avoid, I would say don't ask for feedback on people on how you can improve their work lives unless you really mean to follow up on it.

Lots of organizations are saying the right thing right now – but actually doing the work to become an anti-racist organization, and really become a place where people of color have equitable access to opportunities and are represented at leadership levels in an organization – that's tremendously hard work. It forces you to rethink all of your processes and systems around how you identify, hire, and develop talent.

So unless your organization is committed to doing that work, please do not have the conversation, because you're just going to make it worse.

If you have employees' trust, they'll tell you where to direct your efforts.

To give you an example, we as an organization are not perfect on this issue. We have work to do, and we're in the same boat with lots of organizations, where maybe there are places where we thought we were acting more equitably than we actually are. I'm glad that we're having the conversations now, because our employees are telling us where we need to direct our efforts. So I'm super grateful to our employees, particularly our Black employees and other employees of color who have been willing to be vulnerable and open to sharing with us how they're feeling – because it's only by understanding their perspectives that we even know where to start to tackle this work.

Ultimately, I think if you're going to ask people to be vulnerable, open, honest, and raw – then you need to honor what they've given you by making a commitment to do something about it and following up.

Oh, and please – I can’t stress this enough – do not ask your employees of color to do the work of educating you around what the issues are.

Do the work yourself. Hire a consultant and/or read a book to educate yourself, but it's hard enough for Black people to show up at work right now, so don't ask them to do the additional emotional labor of educating you on the issues.

And I know a lot of companies have Black employee resource groups (ERGs), or communities of interest (COIs) as we call them at Ultimate and Kronos. All of our COIs are employee-run, so employees who have full-time jobs are also participating in COIs, because they enjoy building community and they want to make the company a better place for everybody. This is already additional work that they're doing, on top of their full-time job. So we need to use a lot of care in determining how best to utilize ERGs right now, because there's a big difference between giving somebody a platform to share their experience (if they want to) and asking people to do the work of educating the organization.

This is where consultants and outside voices can really help because consultants want to do that work, because they get paid for it. So let them contribute in that way and take the burden off your employees. In fact, we have a comprehensive list of resources that we’ve put together for people to learn and talk about race and racism.

RR: And you mentioned this a bit before, but what about people managers – what are some ways HR can support people managers to help them navigate questions or discussions with their employees about race, racial inequality, and/or police brutality?

CP: As a people-first organization, what comes to mind for me is making sure that leaders know that their number one job is to care for and have concern for their people.

It's OK to not want to do a political discussion with your team, but what we need to recognize, especially right now, is that every person on your team is likely suffering through something. They could have a personal stake in what's happening politically or everything that's been happening with COVID-19 – people in our organizations are suffering on an unprecedented level – and I hate the word unprecedented, because it's overused right now; I feel like I should take a shot every time I hear it!

But truly, collectively as an organization, everybody on your team is not OK about something right now. Whether it's a graduation they missed, somebody they know is sick with COVID-19, somebody is laid off from a job, or they have to work from home with their kids and their spouse – everybody is so much more raw, emotionally, than a typical year in an organization.

So my advice to HR is encourage your leaders to be human – connect with their people on a personal level,  even if they just say, “Hey look, I know we've never talked about anything personal at work before, but I also know this is a really hard time for people, and I want you to know that I care about you as your leader.” That's it. You don't have to get into a political discussion.

What that does is it says to their employees, “I see you as a person. I care about you as a person. I'm here to support you as a person.” And I think that can be used for any number of situations that are going on right now.

Leaders shouldn't be afraid to say, "I've seen what has been happening to Black people in this country."

That being said, it is particularly important to our Black employees right now for leaders acknowledge that what's happening is happening to Black people. So I don't think leaders should be afraid to say, “I've seen what has been happening to Black people in this country. I'm concerned about this, and I want you to know that I support you.”

There are a lot of white people who are uncomfortable with race, so they'll say things like, “Oh, I don't see color.” But when you say “I'm colorblind” or “I don't see color” you are erasing what is happening to Black people because you're saying, “Well, I don't see you as that.”

It's incredibly important to name the community that's being impacted by what's going on. And this also applies to other situations.

For example, I think about this from my perspective when the Pulse nightclub shooting happened four years ago. There were a lot of people who reached out to me and said things like, “I think mass shootings are so bad.” And I obviously think that too, but what I wanted people to say to me as a queer woman is, “I see what's happening to LGBTQ people” or “I just saw what happened to a gay club, and I thought of you and I wanted to make sure you’re OK.” That's meaningful to me.

So, we need to be comfortable enough to say “Black,” and we need to be comfortable enough to say “racism.” We need to name specifically what's happening, so that people don't feel erased, so they feel seen, heard, and validated.

RR: It’s so critical to make sure leaders are prepared for these conversations. And for our final question today – since we’re coming up on performance review season, how could organizations recognize that their Black employees’ performance may have been disproportionately impacted by events throughout the year? How could they account for this in performance reviews?

CP: I think that's a great question, and I don't want to erase the specific experience of Black people here, but I think, as an organization, you need to be thinking about how COVID-19 has also impacted people – which also disproportionately impacts people of color, people who are working in essential job functions, and has caused all sorts of issues.

So HR needs to take a breath this year and realize that, if you have seen employees with dip in performance, that it's quite possible that their dip in performance is related to increased stress and pressure, grief and grieving, or mental health issues that they are experiencing as a result of ongoing trauma – so just be kind of folks this year.

Consider the realities of what performance truly means this year.

And (I haven't even brought this up to our team) what would happen if you just cancelled performance evaluations at your company? I mean, really, what are you reviewing people on? How well they can show up in a pandemic? How well we can be in meetings with our kids running around? It’s worth considering what would be the harm in giving everybody a pass and saying, “look we recognize this has been an extraordinary year for everybody so we are going to give everybody the 2 percent or 3 percent or whatever the merit increase is and then collectively we're going to take a breath and move forward for 2021.”

I think there are a lot of people, myself included, who would appreciate that little bit of grace. So we've had that conversation as a team, about recognizing that even your top performers this year might not be doing so great.

So can we be human? And can we be kind? And can we recognize that for some people, this year will be a blip in the norm, and then next year maybe we can get back to normal. But I think we should collectively err on the side of grace here and be kind to each other, because we all need it right now… I mean it's called human resources, right? Put the human back in there. Maybe we give everybody 5 percent, because you know what, they are still showing up despite everything. Just be extra kind to everybody… but I'm HR, not finance!

Stay tuned for part 2 of our interview with Cara.