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  • Dr. Ella F. Washington

Q&A with Dr. Ella Washington: How Leaders Must Show up for Their Black Employees

This article originally published on the future forum blog by Sheela Subramanian.


During a recent Future Forum event about diversity, equity, and belonging in the workplace, Kim Seymour, CHRO of WW, asked CEOs: “When it’s March 2021, [and Black History Month is over], are you still showing up?”


With all the dialogue about workplace inclusion these days, it’s critical for leaders to move beyond “performative wokeness” to sustained investments in their employees. During Future Forum’s Summit on Diversity, Equity, and Belonging (DEB) in October 2020, Dr. Ella Washington, a faculty member at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, and the founder of Ellavate Solutions, noted a disconnect between how versed in DEB practices leaders think they are, and how they actually act in the workplace.


Based on recent data from the Remote Employee Experience Index:

  • Only 53 percent of US-based Black knowledge workers agree that they are “treated fairly at work”

  • Black knowledge workers rank “making sure their employer knows they are working” as their second most pressing challenge (for white employees, it’s far down the list at number 8).

  • About half (54 percent) of Black employees rate their sense of belonging at work “good or very good”, compared to 70 percent of white employees

The difference in experience between Black and white employees is stark; incremental change by leaders will never be enough to change the trajectory of Black opportunity. We spoke to Dr. Washington to hear her perspective about how leaders can better show up, push for systemic change, and create a better workplace experience for Black employees.


The Q&A below is an excerpt from our interview.


Only half of Black knowledge workers agree that they are “treated fairly at work”. What’s your reaction to that data? And how might company leaders lead with more empathy and understanding?

Many of the issues we are facing today are new experiences, as we’re all in a pandemic that we’ve never lived through before.


But for Black employees, feeling you have to show that you’re working, feeling you don’t quite belong, or that you have to code-switch—all of those things are not new. I’m glad it’s coming to light. However, I do think that this hybrid working environment does present new opportunities for us to look at things differently.


So how should leaders show up?

First of all, leaders have to walk the walk. They have to seek out people’s perspectives and demonstrate empathy.


You also have to also reward and recognize those behaviors. If you’re on the leadership team and you are telling your managers that you want them to be more empathetic, you can’t just say it. You have to provide some support to do that and recognize when people have done it positively.


In this virtual environment, we have to over-communicate and part of that is saying: “Hey, we don’t have this part quite figured out yet, but we’ll get back to you when we do.” A lot of times, we don’t like to say that as leaders of organizations, but that’s what real transparency lies. Part of transparency is: “Hey, we did this culture survey and found out things aren’t so great, and we’re going to do something about it.” Or, “We’re not sure what to do about it yet, but we’ve hired somebody and we’re working on it over the next three months.” That’s key to transparency.


Authenticity is the second part. In this virtual world, it’s so easy for leaders to act like they have it all together and act like it’s business as usual. But if we’re talking about building trust, it’s really important for leaders to be authentic and be vulnerable and say, “I’m struggling with this.” And, “This is how I’m dealing with it,”and follow up with: “What are you all struggling with?” This question is not coming from a place of judgment or task mastering, but more so just bringing humanity into the workplace. We have to go above and beyond to do that in this virtual world because we’re so far removed. We can’t even reach out and touch someone if they’re hurting.


“But for Black employees, feeling you have to show that you’re working, feeling you don’t quite belong, or that you have to code-switch—all of those things are not new. I’m glad it’s coming to light. However, I do think that this hybrid working environment does present new opportunities for us to look at things differently.”


Beyond vulnerability, how can leaders show solidarity with employees during this time?

There’s a difference between “working from home” versus “working from home in a pandemic.” For example, the flexibility is an advantage for all workers. But particularly with Black workers, that’s been largely taken away with childcare and elderly care and other home responsibilities. In this pandemic, we’re not able to consider [this situation] flexible.


When we go back, we can learn lessons, but right now you’re not working from home. You’re working through a pandemic. Kids still aren’t in school. Many of us still can’t see our families. People can’t fill their community cups. A large part of how Black workers were able to show up to work and code-switch was because they could rely on their larger communities.


We just have to continually acknowledge that this is different.


Now that Black History Month is over, how can leaders show up for their employees and commit to inclusion?

A year ago people weren’t woke, right? Now we are, but when it’s time for action, there are still gaps—even in talking about having these tough conversations. For example, I wrote a piece in HBR about how to talk to your employees about the insurrection at the Capitol. And the reason why I wrote that is because many leaders have been talking for six months about these tough issues. But the next day after the insurrection, when they got back to their teams, they weren’t thinking “Oh, this is the moment for me to actually walk the talk.”


We can read about it. We can say we learned so much. But you need to do more. Are you actively questioning the status quo? Are you asking the question: how does work get assigned, evaluated, and rewarded? Are you thinking about how these processes are equitable?


Any time that you can’t clearly point to an objective or well-defined process you should pause. And then when you have that pause, you should start to examine the processes to see if there have been any inequitable outcomes, even if they’re unintended.


“Are you asking the question: how does work get assigned, evaluated, and rewarded? Are you thinking about how these processes are equitable?”


So, if we can’t clearly say how work gets assigned, let’s pause on that. Let’s not just push through it. For example, work sometimes gets assigned to whoever raises their hand in a team meeting, right? That’s problematic in lots of different ways. And we can get into gender diversity and racial diversity, but let’s just say, that’s how it gets done. It’s totally fine in the workplace when we’re in person. But how does that translate to the virtual work environment? Are employees expected to raise their hand whenever the first email gets in? In virtual meetings, the loudest voice gets picked up by the system first. And there’s not a lot of ability for these systems to pick up multiple voices. We need leaders to be intentional in making sure virtual environmental factors are not exacerbating existing structures of inequity.


That’s just one example of many. But how are we evaluating our normal processes from the lens of the virtual environment? How are we questioning how they could contribute to inequitable outcomes or experiences? It may feel tedious and that you could do this all day, but that’s what commitment to equity requires.


If you’re committed to asking: “How do we create more equitable spaces for Black workers—and all workers—in this virtual environment?” then these are the process questions we have to start asking ourselves.

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