Creating a psychologically safe environment for black employees

HR practitioners must push themselves out their comfort zones, truly believe racism is a problem and regularly review diversity data, say Claudine Charles and Geoffrey Williams

Simply Googling ‘the psychological impact of racism’ generates over 42 million search results. Many of the results from the first few pages are from empirical studies on health and mental health, discussing the likely psychological impact of racism on the wellbeing of the recipient.  

It’s incredibly distressing to experience racism anywhere but especially in the workplace – a place where you spend most of your time and work with others in pursuit of a common goal.  

Over the years, we’ve established that having a diverse workforce that’s representative enhances the performance of organisations. So how can HR practitioners create psychological safety among the workforce, so employees thrive and the organisation utilises their collective intelligence to generate business results?

There is no doubt racism stifles progress, innovation and evolution. We are only as good as our teams. So organisations need to create safe environments which ensure racial equality.  We addressed how to create an anti-racist workplace in a previous article. But even where great initiatives are in place, HR practitioners need to accept that employees do face racism, confront and tackle issues confidently and appropriately, and create a psychologically safe environment for these issues to be reported and addressed.  

Many HR practitioners enter the profession wanting to help people. However, they quickly learn that their actual priority is to protect the organisation, first and foremost. But considering the increased awareness and potential negative business consequences of racist incidents that involve black employees, more than ever this forces HR practitioners to balance the commitment to their organisations with an understanding of the experience of minorities.

To create a psychologically safe environment and resolve and tackle incidents of racism appropriately, all practitioners need to:

Reflect and understand their possible unconscious bias and even address any conscious bias that they’ve developed based on the mental models and narratives that they’ve been taught. Research by Norton and Sommers found that, among white respondents, there was the perception that systemic racism and racism in general was decreasing. However, we must ensure a collective understanding that racism is still a long-standing issue across the world.  

Become uncomfortable to change.  Many white people may feel as though they are being accused or are now on the receiving end of discrimination or scrutiny themselves as a result of a heightened awareness around race. However, we are the result of the collective and we cannot make positive change unless everyone wants to change.  

Believe that racism is a problem and discrimination does not benefit anyone. In the words of author Toni Morrison, racism is a ‘profound neurosis’ and only seemingly benefits those ‘who can only be tall because someone is on their knees.’ 

Review culture survey and diversity data. Even if the data set for black employees is really small that in itself gives you insight. Practitioners can make a difference that could potentially be profound and lead to a positive change in their organisation.  

Provide employees with education on racial equality.  Many may not believe this is a business imperative. But if we are to create equity and ensure high-performing teams built on the foundations of trust, it becomes a priority.  

Don’t rely on ‘band aid’ diversity and inclusion training or the simple recording of incidents as solutions without understanding the issue at hand and investing the time and energy dealing with it. Training has benefits and a purpose but it should not be the only solution.

Use record-keeping and data analysis more effectively.  Racist incidents occur in organisations, but to truly improve and evolve as a business, these incidents need to be acknowledged and considered as a problem that should be dealt with. Rather than just recording them, investigate why such incidents happen, develop strategies to learn from, and continuously educate managers on the progress of change and how the business is evolving positively to become anti-racist. 

Understanding policies, processes, data and even award-winning diversity initiatives are not enough. These do not mean you’re preventing or addressing racist incidents in your organisation. Robert Livingston, a writer, researcher, lecturer and consultant specialising in diversity, leadership and authority, recently developed an intervention model called PRESS, with the stages organisations should move through to build racial equality. These are:

  • Problem awareness 
  • Root cause analysis
  • Empathy
  • Strategies for addressing the problem
  • Willingness to invest time and energy to truly correct the problem.

Practise responding appropriately. Empathy leads to change. For equality, everyone needs to have empathy where they truly put themselves in the shoes of those who have experienced discrimination. Everyone can benefit from listening without judgement or assumptions, accepting the point of view of the other person, especially regarding the way the incident made them feel. This should be the case even if the incident makes the listener feel uncomfortable and even if there is no physical proof. Responding in this way leads to direct action to change practices, as opposed to dismissing incidents, which potentially leads to grievances and magnifies the issues. 

Claudine Charles is founder and director of Blended Learning Studio, and Geoffrey Williams is founding director of GOW