Sharing the Load: How Leaders Must Lead in the Age of Racial Reconciliation

For many years, Black employees have played a key role in retaining Black talent within corporate work environments. Helping colleagues navigate workplace dynamics, negotiate opportunities, offering support, and addressing racism within the company are just a few examples of the work Black employees are doing, and have been doing, for years. In this unofficial role, their work has often gone unnoticed and uncompensated for by the companies that benefit from their additional labor.

On July 8th, 2020, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership (EGAL) hosted an event with EGAL’s Founder and Executive Director, Kellie McElhaney, and Consultant, Writer, and Speaker, Tara Jaye Frank, to explore the ways in which corporate leaders can lead conversations and initiatives that address race in the workplace. Over the course of the hour-long conversation, Tara shared her personal experience and knowledge of corporate culture, pointing to the numerous ways Black talent has long been neglected in the workplace and provided some methods leaders can utilize to push for systemic change. Here are three major takeaways from the discussion.

When Black employees attempt to address issues in the workplace, they are often dismissed and left to rely on the support of other Black executives and colleagues. The loss of mitigation between companies and employees results in a strained relationship that discourages employees from seeking future help. Tara explains how Black employees have long functioned in a “parallel system” between the official and unofficial avenues to access support and resources; the creation of the unofficial route is a trusted alternative resource where Black employees can seek out Black executives in the company for advice or guidance with a work issue that is not being addressed or worked on by official/internal leaders. Black executives are expected to perform this unpaid secondary role all while managing their own personal challenges and struggles in the job. In order to transform these structures and take steps to amend past negligence, Tara emphasizes the importance of leaders directly asking their Black employees how to make it right. Whether that means increasing pay, creating more resources, or providing more time off, “respect looks like doing what’s best for an individual,” Tara states. It’s up to company leaders to initiate these corporate reparations.

The workplace was intentionally constructed to discourage conversations on race, however, the current social and political climate necessitates dialogue and action now more than ever. There can no longer be grace for those who willfully choose to stay silent on the existing issues within society and professional environments. Tara introduced the audience to a model of four categories that encapsulates what “White America Not Engaging” looks like:

  1. Inelegantly Curious: People within this category are curious, ask questions inelegantly, and despite having low knowledge, they demonstrate a high willingness to learn.
  2. Confident Contributors: These individuals have a strong grasp and awareness of their privilege and systemic racism. They do their research and use their accumulated knowledge to contribute to the conversation and educate others.
  3. Misguided Conjecturers: Those in this category often state their opinions as facts. They are presented as individuals with high perceived knowledge, however, they have a low willingness to learn or listen to others.
  4. Disrespectful Disrupters: Disrespectful individuals who aim to provoke and insult. They will get blocked by Tara.

The purpose of this model is not to discourage people from engaging, but to instead welcome people to be honest about their curiosity even if it’s articulated clumsily. This can best be summed up in Tara’s statement, “I would rather people care inelegantly than not care at all.” People are going to be afraid to ask questions out of fear of messing up but with a little grace and compassion, we can create the dialogue necessary to enact change.

Leaders today may immediately turn to mandatory unconscious bias training as a solution to their problem, but the most effective way to combat racial bias, according to Tara, is to instead build relationships across racial lines. Mandatory training is not sustainable and may inadvertently push individuals on the polar end of the issue deeper into their existing beliefs. Tara suggests that leaders “do work that brings people together and helps them understand other people’s lived experiences.” With a focus on relationship building, she recommends that leadership be clear about their expectations, values, and operations to create a healthy environment. In addition to this, establishing allyship in the workplace must “look like in the moment intervening.” Black employees are subject to microaggressions and offensive comments that are largely overlooked and unaddressed by the company. Leaders and allies must make it a point to call out offensive and inappropriate behavior when it happens to set a precedent for the future. Results in these changes to the work environment may not be immediate, but the gradual change can create long-term structural and cultural change. Tara ultimately urges people to “access our humanity” to adequately recognize our differences and make strides to listen and support one another in this fight.

Additional insights from this event were shared in our July 15, 2020 EquityEd Newsletter. You can also view the event in it’s entirety below.

At the heart of UC Berkeley's Business School, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership educates equity-fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store