Company Culture
DEI / HR / POC in Tech / Women in tech / Workplace culture

Employees must feel secure when discussing difficult topics at work

A traumatic year including police brutality and a stressful election has raised awareness for companies' needs to give voice to their employees' lived experiences. But there are better ways to do it.

A Philadelphia march held in honor of Black women killed by police, June 2020. (Photo by Julie Zeglen)

In a year that has seen COVID-19 change the way people live and work, police brutality has also raised questions about the safety of marginalized communities in the U.S. Following the killings of Black Americans such as George Floyd, companies have attempted to use one-one-one meetings and more transparent communication to better engage employees on difficult topics.

But for Black technologists such as Roger Campbell II and those of other minority groups in the tech workforce, having to explain your lived experience to people from different backgrounds can be a burden when you already need to be twice as good at your job to be taken seriously.

Campbell said that allowing employees of different backgrounds to share their learned experiences cannot come at the expense of their emotional labor.

“For some people, the only time they get access to talk to people outside of their own circle or race is at work,” he said. “If we can conversate where we have a level of middle ground, we can start to see each other as people. At the same token, for Black and minority people to have to educate people at work can be a lot.”

Feeling supported by leadership is important for all employees but special attention should be paid in the case of employees of color when it comes to issues like police brutality. Campbell has had a myriad of experiences in dealing with difficult events while at work.

He’s currently the director of youth work-based learning at Wilmington’s Code Differently, a Black-owned company, which he calls a “freeing experience”: Being able to have conversations about race and politics with Code Differently’s two Black co-owners has been in stark contrast with Campbell’s time at other jobs. For years, he said, he had to frequently tailor his comments so that he would not create an uncomfortable moment for his peers and ultimately come off as “the angry minority.”

Working at a Black-owned company has also made Campbell explore repressed trauma that he felt over years of not being able to authentically discuss his humanity as a Black person with his non-Black coworkers, he said. A sobering anecdote about his time at a previous employer exemplifies that.

“At one of the previous companies I worked for, when a particular individual was murdered, they hosted a town hall for the company,” he said. “Leadership sat us all down to say they were here for all minorities and Black and brown employees. They broke us up into individual rooms of 20 with people from the C-suite. One of the things the C-level execs asked us we felt — and I said that I was sick and tired of people outside of my race asking me how I feel.”

Code Differently’s Roger Campbell II. (Courtesy photo)

One local visual designer who asked to remain anonymous told that she left a previous job before because of constant stress that resulted in her overall unhappiness. Feeling unheard and unsupported by her leadership at the time was a demoralizing experience that impacted her ability to do the best work possible, she said.

She believes that leadership at companies and organizations could use empathy to better connect with their employees as people and not just workers.

“I think it’s a reminder that we have to support each other not just in a professional capacity but on a human level as well,” she said. “This year has been extremely volatile and with all the of uncertainty I think it’s become even more important to have the space to discuss difficult topics because it makes them easier to process and work through.”

URBN senior engineer Michael James agrees about the importance of cultivating a safe space for employees to discuss critical topics. For James, having a manager who is aware of employees’ feelings during difficult moments like the recent police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. is essential.

“I feel like the only reason I have space at work is because my manager is really good about being aware of this and communicating that need throughout the chain of command at my job,” he said. “If it weren’t for her, I don’t feel as if anything would be different from any other day.”

Following Wallace’s death, James’ manager encouraged him to take some time away.

“No one else brought it up,” he said.

Since the pandemic started, James has used biweekly meetings with his manager to communicate about how he is doing on a personal level. His department had a tried to use a department-wide Zoom call weeks after Floyd’s killing, but few employees spoke up because the meeting was too big and no one understand the purpose of the call until they were on it, he said.

Using consistent, open communication, leaders at companies can make employees feel more supported and build a more person-first environment during a time when many professionals are seeking empathy.

Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: URBN

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