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Rise and Shine! How the Racial Equity Movement is Changing Human Resources

Sep 28, 2020
HR Acuity

It’s hard to believe it’s been four months since George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, galvanizing the racial injustice movement across the country. Confederate monuments have been dismantled and police have revisited and revised their policies. June 19th, or Juneteenth, already recognized in the Black community, became a national holiday. Individuals and organizations alike have come together to reflect and commit to making a difference.

Addressing racial inequity is now center stage – and we as white HR professionals need to play a leading role. We need to be willing to not only learn from our co-workers and employees of color, but also to take meaningful action.

So what do employee relations and HR leaders need to change and leverage this moment – and this movement – to drive real change? Here are my thoughts. I welcome yours also.

1. Focus on knowledge, skills and abilities.

What new KSAs will need to be identified? How will HR teams recruit for these new KSAs? How will we upskill our existing HR professionals?

To varying degrees, all HR professionals will need to bring different types of knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) to the table to be effective at taking meaningful action when it comes to racial inequity.

Gone are the days that this is led only by your organization’s culture, diversity and inclusion department. For instance, your future HR pros need to have experience in starting up and continuing tough conversations about race at work – and during the selection process, candidates must be able to articulate their success.

What’s more, HR and employee relations candidates need to have experience spreading awareness of racial discrimination/harassment and unconscious bias. If they are uncomfortable talking about it with the leaders they support, how can the organization ensure leaders are doing their part to identify and stop discrimination, harassment, unconscious bias, etc.?

Finally, your organization must embed anti-racism into its values, training and actions. And, HR needs to create this framework in partnership with management. It’s time that HR takes a hard look at its policies, behaviors and partnerships with vendors and renounce all that contradict your company’s anti-racist values

In other words, as stated recently by Maudette Uzoh, owner of Amazing Days Nursery:

“Companies should focus on how they can cultivate an environment where it’s impossible for racism of any sort to sprout or thrive.”

And what about existing HR professionals? How do we upskill them so they can be as effective as possible?

You can start by ensuring that anti-racism education, which covers attitudes, cultural messages, stereotypes and beliefs due to implicit bias, is continuously provided to everyone in your HR organization.

This cannot be a “check-the-box” exercise. Rather, it must be regularly reviewed, discussed and actively practiced by all of your HR professionals.

We all must “walk the walk” if others are to follow us.

2. Learn new ways to address conflict management.

I recently heard a speaker say we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. HR professionals must be willing to ask AND answer the difficult racial injustice questions. How?

Coach the coach: Today, this is more important than ever. How will HR support leaders so they are equipped to have tough conversations in the workplace about race? These may include activities that take place outside of work.

HR must prepare leaders for these conversations so that they can give their employees a safe place to talk through their emotions about what is going on in the world around them. When employees feel safe at work, they are far more likely to be more productive and engaged.

Investigate allegations of racial discrimination/harassment: Is there a need to ensure HR professionals have a better understanding of acute/systemic racism, including microaggressions? Do we need to ensure our white investigators, in particular, understand how to recognize their own unconscious biases and what to do about them? These are questions we all must consider and address.

Resolve investigations into racial discrimination/harassment: How do we up-skill investigators so they can manage the following:

  1. Help leaders of color understand why their direct report’s claim of race discrimination/harassment wasn’t substantiated.
  2. Ensure investigators appropriately manage emotional responses to unsubstantiated and substantiated allegations.
  3. Create opportunities following investigations into race discrimination/harassment to educate those involved.
  4. Understand the connection between social justice organizations and labor unions. We’ve seen a recent evolution of protests over wages and immigration (Fight for $15, Day of Immigration, etc.) to Black Lives Matters protesters taking up the causes of employees who feel as though their employment action/termination was due to their race.

There are multiple issues associated with this notion: employee participation in protests, uniform adornments with BLM, I Can’t Breathe, social media posts, etc. If you’re in a unionized organization, understanding the connection between social justice movements and unions is critical.

  1. Promote corporate citizenship: Potential talent increasingly cares about company positions on a variety of social issues, including racial injustice. Our positions must be clear – and we must be clear on them.

2020 has been a year of anxiety, change and turmoil. It’s also a time of opportunity. For HR and employee relations, this is our time to rise and shine. We have been thrust into the spotlight and our teams are looking to us as examples.

How can we get used to being comfortable being uncomfortable? How do we deal with, as I just heard another speaker say, addressing the “elephant in the room” and tackle issues like racism straight on?

Our goal can’t be perfection. It has to be action and progress. We need to give permission and confidence to the leaders we support to have courageous conversations about racial injustice, and we need to equip our own teams to do that.

This moment is also a chance for HR to elevate our brand and help demonstrate to the business our role in solving business problems. We have been instrumental in managing COVID and helping employees work through the most trying time in recent history.

If we step up now, we can help solve this historic challenge. This is not the burden of HR professionals of color, nor the sole responsibility of culture, diversity and inclusion departments. It belongs to the rest of us.

We can’t allow this opportunity to pass us by. It could be the tipping point for true racial justice. If we don’t rise and shine now, our people of color may endure another several hundred years of systemic racism. It will take more than words and commitments. It will take actions, training, measurement and new skills.

I’m all in. I hope you’re with me. Let me know your thoughts. Please reach out to me at

HR Acuity