Black Lives Matter – Unless You're Black In The Workplace

Black employees don’t need statements, they need real action, Rene Germain and Adesuwa Ajayi write.
fizkes via Getty Images

The murder of George Floyd in the US and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests taking place globally have led many organisations to express their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and their black employees, and making generous donations to black organisations.

However, this new apparent solidarity with the black community is rather surprising, especially to their Black employees who are used to dealing with racism and micro-aggressions every day.

It’s ironic to see companies who have failed to act on racism for so long, suddenly professing to care. Where is the solidarity when you pay us less than our white counterparts? Where is the solidarity when you fail to hire and promote us into senior leadership roles? Where is the solidarity when we report racist incidents and we are told to ignore it?

“Now more than ever, companies need to realise that talk is cheap and Black employees are tired.”

Numerous conversations have been happening online as company statements have been critiqued by current and former Black employees. As the two black female founders of nine to five’s, an online community for black people in the workplace, we saw it as our duty to amplify and expand this conversation, so we created #blackintheoffice on twitter and asked Black employees to message us their experiences so we could share them anonymously.

The response has been overwhelming, with many recommending the thread as essential line manager and senior leadership reading. Whilst it provides a much-needed raw insight into the black British employee experience, it has also been heart-breaking to read.

Common trends we saw across the submissions included Black women being subjected to negative comments about their natural hair styles, weaves and wigs, with colleagues touching their hair and even attempting to remove wigs during work night out.

Many of those that got in touch with us said they found out upon leaving their jobs that they were being significantly underpaid, and being replaced with lesser qualified white people who were being paid more.

Others spoke of being labelled as “aggressive, pushy, sassy, negative”, or being subject to inappropriate comments about drug use, gangs or slavery, and receiving no support from their peers or HR when reporting incidents.

And the submissions showed this issue isn’t unique to one particular industry either. It happens everywhere, from law to banking, recruitment, fashion and luxury, beauty and cosmetics, charity, transport, aviation, education, property and construction, journalism and more. As suspected, there is no “safe industry” or “safe workplace” if you are Black.

Now more than ever, companies need to realise that talk is cheap and Black employees are tired. We are tired of the blanket statements and empty promises. We want to know of the specific actions you are going to take to create a safe environment for Black employees to thrive. We would like clear transparency and accountability around those actions. We would like to be spoken to as the Black community and not referred to as BAME or people of colour, because we are not a singular homogenous group. We want to be listened to and trust that we can report incidents without fear of retribution. We want to be paid fairly. We want to see more Black people in senior leadership, because we know they exist in our firms and externally, so why don’t you hire or promote them?

Now is also the time to recognise the things that don’t work. It simply isn’t enough to just hire more Black people, not until you have taken the necessary steps to make your workplace more inclusive of them. Hiring a diversity and inclusion lead takes away from the fact that a diverse and inclusive workplace needs to be the responsibility of everyone. The unconscious bias trainings mask the ugly reality that much of the behaviours Black employees are subjected to are very conscious and calculated. “One size fit all” diversity and inclusion initiatives for “minority” employees don’t address the unique issues those individual communities face.

Systemic racism is rife and the injustices that Black people are subjected to don’t stop with police brutality. The way in which companies treat their Black employees is another type of injustice that needs to be acknowledged and addressed. It’s time for companies to do better and take action.

Rene Germain and Adesuwa Ajayi are co-founders of nine to fives, an online community for black professionals in the workplace.


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