5 Ways to Support Black Employees

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5 Ways to Support Black Employees

VP of DEI, Teron Buford shares five ways companies can support their Black employees.

Teron Buford

How can company’s support their employees directly and acknowledge issues they face?

First, and foremost, you must be bold. Often, companies feel the obligation to explain why they’re spending time, energy, efforts, and resources supporting a specific group (in this case, Black employees) to employees who are not members that group (in this case, White employees). It’s taxing and further alienates when the primary goal is to bolster feelings of belonging. Now, I’m not saying that companies shouldn’t provide background information on why initiatives exist; instead, I’m saying that companies should provide the background and move into the implementation stages ASAP. Don’t spend time worrying about which privileged/highly represented group members might have FOMO; spend that energy doing the work.

Get away from the idea that equality is the gold standard. It’s not. Equality suggests that giving everyone the same resources or treating everyone the same way is the fix-all for DEI issues within a company. That’s analogous to giving everyone a slice of pepperoni pizza and disregarding the fact that some folks can’t eat cheese, gluten, pork, and/or tomatoes. Be bold in listening to the needs of under-represented employee groups and then act on their feedback. That’s when we step away from the idea of equality and toward the aspiration of equity: meeting employees where they are and giving the access to resources to get them to where they want to be.

How should company’s reach out to their Black employees?

There’s no one-size-fits-all playbook for reaching out to black employees. The size of the company, number of Black employees, and already-established culture of the company are just a few things to consider when determining the best way to solicit input. Small company? Maybe safely assembling a group of Black employees to talk about their shared interests/concerns and potential solutions/desired outcomes is the way to go. Large company? Perhaps a climate survey to gauge perceptions and possible action steps. Knowing the audience and the company culture will be step one in devising an approach. Here’s the dirty little secret: it’s going to take time, trust-building, and intentionality to gain buy-in; that’s the hard part. But hard doesn’t mean “impossible.” We prioritize the things that we feel are important. If gaining perspective from your Black employees is valued, you’ll make time for it.

How should companies go about training for these topics?

Authentic voices are key. I want someone who looks and lives like me talking about experiences that are unique to people who look and live like me. That’s #1.

Modality is totally based on the audience. Some folks prefer reading and reflecting. Some prefer watching and taking notes. Others prefer listening and discussing. A healthy mix is probably the best way to go but, as always, the onus is with the facilitator(s) to know the group, understand their needs, and provide a curriculum that fits the learning style of the group. Remember: equity is better than equality in these cases.

It’s also important to note that modality should be fluid. What works today may not be applicable tomorrow. Instead of growing frustrated with changing landscapes, companies should work to become more flexible and open to the ever-evolving nature that is the human experience, which is exponentially more complicated at its intersection with race and ethnicity.

How can companies build a better workplace for Black employees?

Companies can’t be afraid to boldly go where others haven’t gone before. There will always be detractors and people who will ask “why do they get….but we don’t…..?” The company must determine which side of the fence they want to operate on and then do so boldly. Might you lose clients? Sure. Might you gain clients? Sure. It’s on the company to decide who and how it wants to serve. Part of that means listening to the needs of their under-represented employees (in this case, black employees) and then having the gumption to do something with the information that’s collected.

Also, building a diverse workforce is important but should not be the final goal. Companies need to ask themselves “what are we doing to empower the voices within our walls? Do we have meaningfully diverse and inclusive representation in positions of leadership? Do those in positions of leadership have power to create meaningful change?” You get the drift. It’s not a numbers game; it’s a matter of creating a sense of belonging and buy-in.

Also, if companies want to see more Black employees gravitate toward their business (for employment or use of services), companies should consider how they’re showing up to and for the Black community. Are you supporting policies and practices that benefit these communities? Are you speaking out against injustice? Are you using your platform to promote meaningful change? Are you modeling the environment you encourage other companies to have? Are you reinvesting in the community? Answering these (and other) questions will help you better understand how/why your company is/is not having success with recruiting, hiring, retaining Black talent and might provide insight on how the community views your presence.

How can leaders promote conversations around race?

They shouldn’t only “promote” the conversations; they should MODEL them. Be the example. Show that it’s ok to not know EVERYTHING. It’s ok to make mistakes, it’s ok to not fully grasp the lived-experiences and perceptions of other races. And, in the same vein, be willing to learn, share, own missteps, and take an active role in their own growth.

Leaders need to be better at acting on intel. If my son brings an important issue to me, it’s up to me to decide how to act on it. My response (or lack thereof) will directly impact his willingness to bring other concerns to me. His trust is me may falter. And his belief in my allyship may waiver. My son’s experience with me will undoubtedly be shared with my daughter who, too, may become wary of my desire to help. And, before I know it, the kids will be ready to label me as someone who is too rigid to change and too stubborn to admit shortcomings. Leaders need to allow themselves to believe the perspectives of others and then meaningfully work to support.

Leaders need to make working toward DEI+B (belonging) a priority. Not having “enough time” isn’t a good excuse. Not having “enough resources” isn’t a good excuse. Leaders can find time and resources for the things that truly matter if they TRULY MATTER. Your willingness to work for it, advocate for it, and believe in it. If there has ever been a time to buy into “trickle down,” it is for this kind of work.

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What LGBTQIA+ Inclusion Means

Full disclosure: I’m a cis-gender, heterosexual male. Some might wonder why that information is necessary. I’ll tell you: when we’re collecting perspectives of people with lived experiences that differ from our own, it’s important to recognize our identities, how they have shaped our perception of the world and vice versa.  As Pride month comes to a close, I wanted to take some time like to reflect and uplift a few authentic experiences of LGBTQIA+ individuals in the workplace and their perspectives on inclusion. We reached out to members of our own Avenica community and were met with very insightful and eye-opening feedback. Read on.

What does LGBTQIA+ Inclusion mean to you in general?

“LGBTQIA+ inclusion means that everyone is accepted for who they are no matter who they love but most importantly those people we accept have representation and their ideas and their stories are allowed to come to the front, it’s not something that’s held in the background.” – James Adams

“So I think for me, what that means is making sure everyone feels valid. Making sure everyone feels seen and loved. So, when it comes to a specific group of individuals who identify in a specific way, it’s no different than to be treated like just a normal human being is I would say more of a simplified term and really how I would define inclusion for a specific group and what that means to me.” – Tess Eby

What is one tip you would give an employer for how to foster an inclusive workplace environment for LGBTQIA+ community members?

“If I had to give any advice to an employer around LGBTQIA+ inclusion I would say that it’s important to acknowledge that our community is in the organization all year round, we’re not just here in June and you need to always strive to make sure that not only is there representation and that things feel safe at work but that it’s a welcoming environment no matter what time of the year it is.” – James Adams

“I feel like one tip that I would encourage workplaces to take an initiative to do is to have resources for somebody who might identify way in a specific way or for somebody who is part of a different community to turn to. Not only for LGBTQIA+ but that’s a place where they can go where there are like-minded individuals and they have the comfortability to open themselves up.” – Tess Eby

What is one tip you would give a member of the LGBTQIA+ community for how to find an inclusive workplace environment OR how to encourage an inclusive workplace environment?

“One tip that I would give for people who are trying to search for an inclusive workplace overall is take time to do your research when it comes to companies. Especially today, diversity and inclusion are one of the biggest things that I really see companies advertising as far as what they have to offer for employees. So hopefully that information will be helpful. If not, ask questions within the interview. I think that is usually a big hesitation for individuals who might not want to advertise their identity or sexual orientation which is okay, but then you have to take into consideration if you want to join a company where you don’t feel comfortable asking those questions initially. So, I think that would probably be my best tip. Do your research. Ask questions.” – Tess Eby

How do you think LGBTQIA+ inclusion looks at Avenica?

“Here at Avenica I believe that we do a really good job around inclusion. And not just for the LGBTQIA community but for everyone. We have a lot of efforts that go out to help our employees not only understand the different types of communities we have here at Avenica but why their differences are important. We have representation across a lot of communities, but we also have those people in all different levels of seniority when it comes to our organizational structure” – James Adams

“At Avenica, it’s a safe place. It’s a place where we foster the overall culture of being yourself. No matter what setting. I feel that people don’t have to hide who their significant other is. Or being able to openly be able to talk about their sexuality or the way they identify and really be themselves and really feel accepted within the overall culture and team.” – Tess Eby

Do you have any words of encouragement for the LGBTQIA+ community regarding the workplace or career growth/satisfaction?

“If I had to give any advice, it’s really simple: always be you. If you are 100% authentically representing who you are and who you believe to be, everything professionally will come easier. People want to know that human element of their employees, and the more they know, the more they can grow to enjoy you as an employee but also see how great you do in your role. Be yourself, it will never-ever be the wrong choice.” – James Adams

“Keep pushing yourself. My biggest thing is, if you’re feeling uncomfortable, then you’re growing. Also, to push the boundaries. If you’re in a workplace that you don’t think fosters inclusion and diversity, push those boundaries. Keep going. Keep pushing those boundaries, keep putting yourself out there and really overall just make sure you feel comfortable. Being within the community makes us no different than any other individuals, you can go as high as you want; really the sky is the limit. Just like any other individual out there.” – Tess Eby

Our stories are gifts and whenever one is shared with me, I can’t help but say “thank you” over and over again. Publicly identifying one’s self as LGBTQIA+ and sharing perspectives on lived experiences can be incredibly challenging. But the tradeoff is immeasurable. When brave people stand on their morals and beliefs in order to amplify voices of the historically silenced, we all become better because of it. I hope this dialogue helps to promote the burning urge to go out and create inclusion in every corner of the world. Doing so would create a landscape we could all take PRIDE in.

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Laying the Foundation for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

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Laying the Foundation for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Teron Buford

By: Teron Buford, VP Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Growing up as a Black male in inner-city Chicago, I experienced my fair share of hardships. One might think that, as opportunities presented themselves, things got easier. Not exactly. Laws of thermodynamics suggest that energy is never destroyed but is transferred from entity to entity. I think the same can be said about the struggles of people of color as they navigate the landscape of predominantly white educational and professional workspaces. The worry and anxiety shifted from my neighborhood to my classroom. From my classroom to my office. All along the way, the challenges never subsided; they morphed to fit my new landscapes.

I remember sitting in an English 101 course as we covered literature that focused on social injustice. This took place at a predominantly white college in St. Paul, Minnesota. We were reading a book in which the author purposely left behind her financial stability to explore what it might mean to live on minimum wage. From paycheck to paycheck. During one of our class discussions, a young woman raised her hand and matter-of-factly asked “why don’t people just save more of their money? If they just saved more money, they wouldn’t have to live like they do.” My blood boiled as my inner monologue argued with itself: “Wow! She clearly has no idea about the systems in place that impede financial mobility and financial security. Is it my job to educate her? Am I to be the spokesperson for a group of underserved, underrepresented, and clearly misunderstood people? If I raise my hand, am I going to find myself on an island, fighting a worthy but losing battle? What do I stand to gain if I speak up? What do I stand to lose if I don’t?” I gathered my thoughts, calmed my spirit, and raised my hand.

I remember sitting in a meeting with a former employer where we were looking for ways to bring greater access to a product. We discussed some of the feedback we’d received that claimed our processes were biased and skewed, our policies were rooted in oppression, and that we were effectively marginalizing an already over-marginalized population. We went around the table giving countless examples of our intentions and explaining why our operations needed to remain the same. Some scoffed at the notion that we were a part of the problem. They even pointed out ways in which we have provided the solution. After about 40 minutes of pacifying and justifying our perspectives, my inner monologue was at it again: “I mean, the feedback is making good points. How can so many people experience our product in the same negative way and be wholeheartedly wrong? I understand that our intentions are positive, but does that outweigh the actual impact? Ok, now this is high stakes. Speaking up could jeopardize my job. My income. My family’s finances. Is this my fight? Can someone else do it? Maybe I can send a softly worded email after the meeting? No. That won’t get it done.” I cleared my throat, collected my thoughts, tried to push aside the fear, and spoke my piece.

“Diversity” seems to be the new buzzword floating around the atmosphere. Organizations are scrambling to recruit new and diverse talent. Interestingly enough, I was on a call with a friend at a large organization the other day. He’d asked why most of his diverse employees were leaving the company after 2-3 years. He’d shared that they had solid compensation packages, fancy titles, and fulfilling job responsibilities. I asked about the company’s culture as it relates to equity and inclusion and, not to my surprise, he couldn’t speak to it fully. And that’s the issue: treating DEI as a numbers game will never pan out in the end. The environment matters. The culture of the company as it relates to belonging matters. And, if companies are ever going to get ahead of the curve, they’ll have to build environments that are intentionally conducive to respecting diversity, building equity, and living out inclusion.

For the longest time, we based the success of diversity initiatives on sheer numbers. “That company has XX% people of color and women, which means they’re doing well.” Today, we understand that the issue is a bit too complex for tally marks alone to tell the whole story. Diversity and inclusion, from my perspective, is cultivating an environment that is not only demographically representative of the greater population, but also encourages, empowers, and uplifts the voices of employees who have been historically under-represented, under-valued and, quite frankly, silenced. A commitment to living out these ideals should not only be reflected in a company’s mission, vision, and values, but should be genuinely felt across the company.

There is something to be said for companies that have paid more than just lip service to their commitment to diversity and inclusion. Creating positions, departments, and/or committees with the dedicated responsibilities of increasing diversity and inclusion within an organization is a step in the right direction. Each company, however, will have a different set of obstacles to overcome on their journeys towards creating diverse and inclusive environments and should look to their workforce to help them identify the gaps. At Avenica, for example, we’ve created a diversity board comprised of leaders from various departments who have united to create intentional company-wide learning opportunities. Each quarter has a theme around which topics will be introduced and each month has a dedicated learning goal. There’s a mix of readings, videos, interactive modules, and person-to-person conversations to help aid in the growth process. We will also be rolling out an anonymous feedback survey that will allow participants a safe space to provide input. Regardless of the approach, it cannot be stated enough that company-wide buy-in is integral in this process. Companies should intentionally work to ensure that all employees understand the value of a diverse and inclusive work environment.

All of this, of course, is easier said than done. The marathon of creating inclusive and welcoming spaces functions less as a one-person race and more like a relay; requiring a concerted effort from all involved. No one has all the answers. For more help with laying the foundation for DEI work, I’d recommend starting (but not stopping) with the resources below.

Stay strong.


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