Right in the middle of the largest pandemic we’ve seen in our lifetime, a global outcry led by the Black Lives Matter movement took over our TVs, timelines, and streets making history as the largest civil rights movement ever.
For many of us, the way our justice system most recently failed Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd also grabbed hold of our consciousness.
Their highly publicized stories either affirmed the urgency that you already felt or activated you, perhaps for the first time, around the ongoing issues of civil rights and racism.
Either way, people around the world engaged in discourse and action in ways we haven’t seen before.
Many corporations also joined the conversation by publicly expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, showing support for various forms of protest, or pledging action and commitment towards equality. As employees, consumers, or even bloggers we looked to the companies that we generate business for to follow suit. Across social media platforms and in my own private group discussions, I saw a time-sensitive expectation for corporations to boldly show up on the right side of this fight for justice and equality.
So the week ended and now the clock has run out on anyone who remained silent, right?
Well, I would argue that the clock started a long time ago for companies to speak out against the social injustices happening just outside their brick and mortar—along with the inequities within their organizations.
Breonna Taylor was unfortunately not the first African American woman to be gunned down in her own home at the hands of negligent law enforcement. The protection of a slanted justice system has emboldened those with privilege long before the murder of Ahmaud Arbery or the 911 call made against Christian Cooper. Organizational leaders and employees alike have seen highly publicized recordings of abuse of police power before the traumatizing footage of George Floyd’s death.
In fact, in my lifetime I have watched footage of many of these incidences, expressed anger and pain with family, and taken action alongside fellow volunteers in organizations rooted in the civil rights movement, only to return to work where there was no mention internally or by a public statement.
The responsibility of individuals, leaders, and business owners to act with urgency or risk being complicit in these injustices did not begin or end with last week’s news cycle.
Yet, despite the long history of injustice resulting in this historic showing of civil unrest, your manager, mentors, coworkers, or organizational leaders might have decided to forego this most recent opportunity to speak up. To say that it’s disappointing might not begin to describe your feelings.
So, do you send a scouring email to your boss expressing your disgust in their complicity? Do you respond to your coworker’s dismissive IM putting them on notice? Resign on the spot or say nothing to maintain job stability in the face of record job loss?
I think there’s a range of considerations to be made in times like these when the way that you do business and who you do business with is arguably as much a form of activism as standing on the front lines of a protest to save lives.
Consider first, what you’re looking to gain from what you do next. Are you seeking to change the individual, the organization, the industry, or the world?
Perhaps you feel compelled to change the hearts and minds of an individual leader. On one hand, if an individual still hasn’t bought into the realities of social injustice and their place in the fight by now, what one email or scathing IM is going to change their mind?
On the other hand, if you have the ear of your organizational leaders, you’ve become a trusted advisor, or have a position of influence or privilege, then that’s a start.
Holding accountable the leaders of the companies that we work for or do business with is after all, an act of integrity.
If you feel moved to confront your organization’s leadership about their silence, think about what your intended outcome is and develop your message with that intention in mind.
Consider looking to your mentors or peers within your employee resource groups for advice on how to be most effective in getting your message across or for a second opinion before you hit the send button.
Maybe it’s the organization as a whole that you want to shake up after a lackluster performance in this most recent opportunity to show up.
This is where I choose to focus my energy, in seeking to change the culture of the organizations that I work with— rather than battling for the hearts of individuals.
There are leaders who I expected would speak up or speak more directly than they did this time. I could confront those leaders directly with my feedback, and in time I might do that.
But there were just as many, if not more leaders who used public platforms and internal forums to speak with genuine compassion and commitment to change.
—My efforts are better spent in affirming and showing my support for those leaders who had the courage to do so. Their influence can help shape an organization that stands for integrity and equality and make outliers of those leaders who do not.
—My responses to employee surveys, in employee roundtables, and through 360 feedback requests will also reflect how much I value an organization and leaders who uphold integrity in times like these when it mattered the most.
—My dollars as a consumer will do the same. Consider how you can influence the culture of the organization alongside its leaders who did take a stance.
Still, you might have found that the inaction of your organizational leaders too accurately reflects the company’s values. Perhaps it was the last straw in a series of events confirming that your place in the companies that you work with cannot advance your purpose, your values, or the communities that you care about.
In that case, you might be considering leaving the company. This is a particularly scary time to be in the job market or starting a new venture given the amount of uncertainty.
But if there’s one bright spot in a year where we’re experiencing a global health crisis and a global showing of civil unrest, it’s the light that has been shown on those organizations that knew how to treat employees and show up for the community in difficult times and those that did not.
What you do next, is entirely up to you.
For black professionals like myself who have, long before the most recent news cycle, shouldered the weight of racism in one form or another that the rest of the world is now tuned into, I want to offer another scenario.
Despite the disappointment you may have felt in organizations or leaders, maybe you didn’t have the energy or capacity to take on the CEO or confront your leadership this time. To that, I say, that the notional deadline for organizations to speak up last week was not yours alone to carry.
While the newfound sense of urgency by our colleagues and friends will undoubtedly help to move the needle towards progress, so does the act of your just being. The spaces that you occupy and the way that you show up in those spaces everyday moves the needle.
Rest and take care, the work is far from over.