Black women feel less supported than their white colleagues – it’s time for HR to act

23 Feb 2021 By Yetunde Hofmann

There are many ways people professionals can help female employees of colour progress at work, says Yetunde Hofmann

No employee should ever feel unsupported and no black employee should ever feel less supported than their white colleagues. The reality, however – as confirmed in this McKinsey report – is that this is the case, and has been for a long time. Sadly, this is happening on many HR professionals’ watch. 

HR is one of the most critical functions in organisations today and there comes a time when its leaders must reflect, learn and convert that learning into something positive. It’s time to initiate and drive sustainable change; change that will benefit both the individual and the organisation. Here are some ways in which this can be done:

Conduct some serious self-examination

If a black woman in your organisation feels unsupported and has felt so for a long time, you should question why. Examine your own personal biases first and how you may unwittingly be perpetuating a situation that actually you would not support. Then conduct a root and branch review of all the processes and systems within the business – right from attraction, selection and promotion all the way to exit. 

Enlist the support of stakeholders and peers, including the black woman herself. Be willing to smash some dearly held beliefs and ways of working that, though on the surface seem credible, have for a long time resulted in the exclusion of black women or acted as a barrier to their recruitment or advancing their careers. 

Listen and be fully present in your listening

Listen to the genuine, lived personal experiences of the black women in your organisation. Be fully present in your listening. This means listening without judgement and without condition. It means listening with empathy. It takes courage and a willingness to be vulnerable to share their story. Then ask: ‘What can we do about it?’ Listen with an intent; then take decisive action. Listening without action counts for nothing. 

Start walking the talk

When an issue or problem does not directly impact you, it can at times be difficult to make it a priority. When you work in a leadership function and profession like HR you must be willing to stand up and be counted as an ally to the black women in your organisation. 

Your role is to ensure that all your staff feel they belong and to enable the organisation to benefit from the talent and contribution of all its people. This includes the black women, who, as Business in the Community research shows, are talented, highly educated, full of ambition and have a desire to contribute, given the opportunity and the support. 

Walking the talk means challenging the status quo by, first, proactively engaging and contracting with recruitment agencies that specialise in the supply of black talent and, second, ensuring every black woman in your organisation has a buddy, a mentor and a sponsor. These are not the same. A buddy will be a great sparring partner, a mentor will provide safe and trusted counsel and a sponsor will be an advocate for her progression. 

This means proactively nominating black women to be part of high-profile projects in the organisation and, when it comes to their learning and development, ensuring they are able to participate in company-wide leadership programmes, external or internal, that are specifically designed for the black woman. 

Encourage her to network and diversify your own 

Proactively encourage the black women in your organisation to network with other black women. When she can network with other black women from other industries it provides a forum in which lived and similar experiences and learning can be shared, but also the added benefit of transferring learnings across industry sectors. 

Diversifying your own personal and professional network too – to ensure that it has people with different backgrounds, races, orientations and professions – will serve you. It will strengthen your ability to address issues through different lenses and enrich your life as an HR professional or leader. 

Sit up, stand up and speak up – consistently 

There is nothing more powerful than having someone who does not look or sound like you stand up for you and call out behaviour that undermines you. When this comes from your HR colleagues and HR leaders, the positive impact can be significant. It sends a message that you are valued, you matter and you belong. Speak up for the black women in your organisation and encourage your colleagues to do the same. Raise awareness of the barriers that they may face in the advancement of their careers.

When that black woman is overlooked a third time for a promotion, demand a review as to the reasons for this. Explore what it means to be an ally by reading up on allyship. Do simple things like ensuring her name is pronounced and spelt correctly. It has been reported that people with foreign-sounding names have to send 74 per cent more job applications than their white peers. 

Recognise and commend her talent and contribution 

The black women in your organisation have two significant challenges that they deal with every day at work. The fact that they are women and the fact that they are black. They may have to manage imposter syndrome, which is more prevalent among black women

Focus more on their strengths than their weaknesses. Facilitate opportunities to work on projects and in roles that play to their strengths, recognising their good work and encouraging your peers and other stakeholders to do the same. 

Work can be made richer and more enjoyable for everyone. The ideas shared are applicable to everyone, regardless of gender or skin colour. The beautiful thing is when these ideas are executed in the interest of black women, everyone will benefit. 

Yetunde Hofmann is an executive leadership coach and mentor, inclusion and diversity expert, author of Beyond Engagement and founder of leadership development programme SOLARIS

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