If you are like me, you are more than just a bit off balance with all that is going on in the world. At the end of 2019, things were moving along at a nice clip and we were all excited about the prospect of a robust 2020 -- and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit with a ferocity that we had never seen or could have even imagined. Then, we all saw the senseless murder of George Floyd and other Black civilians replayed over and over across media outlets. As a result, the world exploded into a chaos that is at once compelling and traumatizing, one which many of us still have trouble processing. The issue of race relations and racial injustice symbolized by the Black Lives Matter protests have put issues we have historically been ill-equipped to deal with squarely in our sights.
My own experiences with racism
In my lifetime, I have been a victim of racial discrimination simply because of my skin color -- and it started in kindergarten. My first day of school, I was playing with a young child my age whose name was Brian. He was the only White kid in my school, but I did not realize that until his mom came up to visit the school. She saw the two of us playing, walked over to him and said, “What are you doing?” Before he could answer, she grabbed him and led him away. I never saw him again.
Once on a trip to visit relatives in Memphis, I was literally held at the end of a barrel of a shotgun by an elderly White man who told me when he was younger, he didn’t need a reason to shoot me, and that he would have gotten away with it.
Later in my teen years, I was riding my bicycle and made the mistake of going through the community of Bridgeport in my native Chicago, which at that time was a predominantly White Irish-Catholic community and home to the Daley family, whose members served as high-ranking officials of Chicago for nearly 50 years, including as mayor. As I crossed into the neighborhood, I was confronted by a mob of White youth about my age who were screaming at me to get out while throwing bricks, sticks, and bottles at me. I have never sprinted so fast on a bike and hope I never have to again.
And just two weeks ago, I was walking along a golf course in Chicago. Suddenly, I saw a phalanx of seven police SUVs with lights on and sirens blaring headed straight for me. On the heels of the George Floyd murder, I immediately stopped, put my hands in clear sight, and stood motionless. One officer pulled his vehicle up to me, stopped and stared at me for what seemed like an eternity. Suddenly, I heard over the scanner, “He’s around back, he’s around back!” With that, they sped off, much to my relief.
Now, I am just one person, but I can say without equivocation that the vast majority of my colleagues of color have similar stories about racism, and they all experienced them at a very young age. So, what does this have to do with helping public sector leaders address the psychological needs of employees? In a word -- everything.
Transforming a workforce to reflect true equity
During my time as Head of Human Resources for Cook County, a large percentage of our front-line and field staff were either Black or identified as a person of color (POC), which is why I can say with a great degree of confidence that the Black and other POC members of your team are currently experiencing a great deal of frustration and anger due to race issues that have reached a boiling point in our society. On top of lingering anxiety about COVID-19 shared by everyone, many Black and POC employees are also struggling with a dire need to demand change when it comes to how racism permeates not just their personal lives, but also their professional ones.
When I assumed the role of Director of Human Resources for Cook County, I had a number of people tell me I should replace all my White direct reports because they would never accept a Black person as their boss. I saw firsthand how racism played a role in sabotaging good intentions for personal beliefs rooted in hatred. Now, these challenges that leaders may have always known were there will need to be addressed as employees gradually return to physical workplaces where bias is likely to occur more often.
So, as you contemplate the reopening of your organization, I urge you to recognize that your ability to address the psychological well-being of your team will be paramount to successfully galvanizing them into a cohesive unit. The following are some things you can do to address the mindset of your team and bring the troops together:
1. Communicate early and often about the state of race relations and racial injustice, and give employees a chance to be heard and express their feelings.
2. Educate all of your employees on systemic racism and how it can permeate both their personal and professional lives -- in ways they may have never even been aware of -- so that employees who may have considered it an overblown issue can see it from a new perspective of empathy.
3. Provide opportunities for people to continue the dialogue, starting with one-on-one sessions. Your attempts to reconnect with your team, especially Black people and other POC, will not be successful purely through group interaction. Meeting with them individually will offer more opportunities for candid conversations and trust.
4. Look at your training initiatives for diversity, equity, inclusion, and awareness and collaborate with other leaders in your agency so that the messaging is clear and consistent. Evaluate your approach and determine whether it is appropriate for the times. If you need to make changes, move thoughtfully and with purpose. Any new training that you deliver cannot come across as rushed or reactionary; otherwise, it will strike people as contrived and they will be far less likely to engage.
5. Identify what you can do differently in your hiring and promotion practices. Playing an active role in eliminating bias (both conscious and unconscious) and ensuring that it is applied across all hiring managers and departments will make for not only a more diverse team, but also better qualified candidates.
6. If you have not already done so, take stock of where your team members live, particularly Black and POC employees, and solicit their input on opportunities for how your organization can give back and/or play an active role in the surrounding community. Research causes that align with your public sector mission and reflect a commitment to honoring all races of the areas you serve equally.
As I have marched on the streets of Chicago in various rallies and protests, I have to say that things feel different compared to similar scenarios of recent years. I wasn’t a part of the transcendent civil rights activism of the 1960s, but the one thing I have noticed about footage from that period is that there was a large cross-section of people representing all demographics. That is similar to what I am seeing represented in the activism of today, both in our country and abroad, and it makes me feel hopeful. But we won’t get there without work.
Together we are stronger than we are apart, and when we go about welcoming our team members back to a more normalized routine, we must also create the right conditions to provide support for their psychological well-being. Only by doing so will we ever foster a truly connected and engaged workplace.