Black Lives Matter: how we behave at work

Matt Dean




“I’ll never forget how it felt……”

The weight of silence’ was written by a departing black employee to her employer last year. She was leaving Google, but it feels like she could have been leaving any corporate I’ve worked with recently. Her thoughtful memo is circulating in the wake of George Floyd’s death. 

We absolutely need more of this - more sharing how people feel at work. Testimony like this allows our colleagues to shape the work environment for all of us. It’s a simple truth that what we chose to chat about with work colleagues can be hugely important to others’ wellbeing and psychological safety. 

The writer's colleagues chose to talk about countless topics “deftly and with alacrity”; from celebrity weddings to the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, but “my team simply did not have much to say on the subject of police brutality”. Neither after Eric Garner’s death nor the Ferguson shooting. Not until news coverage started showing peaceful protests that followed the decision not to indict anyone for Eric Garner’s death. Then the writer remembers a colleague asking: “what are those people even trying to do?” 

The colleague disparaged the protesters. Other team members’ nodding heads validated the colleague’s frustration. Sometimes we offend others non-verbally. The writer exclaimed: “how could the team I’d grown to trust and respect care so little about an innocent man who’d lost his life?” 

Her employer’s mantra came to her mind: she should be bringing her whole self to work. Instead she chose to revert to the discretion she’d learnt from her Southern parents about whom to trust. The writer comments specifically on her psychological safety – whether she was confident that she wouldn’t be embarrassed, rejected or punished for speaking up: “I’ll never forget how it felt to reject who I was in order to protect myself.” 

She joined the peaceful protests but silence became her strategy for survival at work.

It’s very simple: a workplace’s culture is based on the unthinking social connections and conversations we all have every day within our teams. The choices we make: what to talk about and how we address a subject; all of this has impact. In the vast majority of situations there’s no ill intent whatsoever. But it’s so important to grasp here – and one of the things I say almost every day – that when we talk about workplace behaviour, our intent is seldom that relevant. It’s impact that’s so important. 

My advice is not to waste your time justifying what you say and do at work by reference to your intent –whether you meant to cause offence. Think instead about the human impact you may be having. Of course we want people to say something when they have a problem. We also want observers to notice what’s going on around them, and to care about how their colleagues may be affected. Everyone has an important role to play. But everything starts with actors thinking about the impact they may be having.

If we are going to create environments in which everyone can thrive – by being themselves at work - then we need more simple statements like this; in which people share their feelings. Ideally they will feel safe doing that before they leave. But that’s going to take colleagues who genuinely care about how others are feeling, whose first thought is to make her feel safe and able to be herself. 

It’s probably less about whether you feel comfortable and know exactly the words to use. Perhaps just ask how she’s feeling. Then listen to understand. 

The writer ends on three ways to improve diversity and inclusion: firstly rethink referrals. Without doubt, in a setting looking to increase diversity, a system prioritising the personal recommendations of the existing workers needs to be thought about. 

Second she wants diversity training that helps people to understand the diverse experiences of their co-workers – that helps them to get better at seeing the impact they may be having on people who are not like them.

Third she wants to provide additional mental health support for employees of colour. I’m reminded of a conversation last week in which my colleague Uxshely, who spends most of her time at byrne.dean talking about mental health, said "let’s face it discrimination is a major factor in poor mental health". Something else I often say: that discrimination is seldom intended. Rather it’s caused by a lack of thought, a lack of understanding about how our colleagues may be interpreting what we’re talking about (or not talking about) and a lack of understanding the importance of our conditioning and unconscious biases.

If I may, I’ll close with my own suggestion for the way forward: kindness. After 15 years’ work on it I’ve managed to distil my thoughts to this: there are three levels of kindness. The first is a basic courtesy and a superficial connection which is not always present, but which the writer suggests was being shown in her team. The second level is to prioritise the other’s perspective – which is basically what the writer complains was not happening. 

There’s a third level too – and one which would mean that Black Lives Matter had succeeded. It comes when you hold in your hands (or your mind) the interests, dreams and fears of the other person.