(Photo by Julie Zeglen)
The last few months have marked what’s sure to be a long-studied moment of history.
Not only is the country facing a pandemic and ensuing recession, it’s experiencing one of the largest coordinated civil rights movements maybe ever.
Amid two straight weeks of protests responding to multiple instances of police brutality and systemic racism, we’ve seen companies across the country put out public statements denouncing racism and supporting civil disobedience and the Black Lives Matter movement. But we’ve heard through various channels that here in Philadelphia, the way companies are addressing these issues with their employees may not be up to par to those workers.
Some people were pleasantly surprised at the statements and actions their employers were taking, while others felt left in the dark, unsure about their company’s stance or how to have the conversations to find out. We launched this form, inspired by Fortune’s “Working while black” survey, to create a space for folks to share their situations anonymously.
We heard from workers in Philly’s tech and tech-adjacent industries, and the majority of responses we got said that company leaders had been addressing current events with their employees in some way or another. Some survey takers seemed pleased with the responses, while others thought they seemed lackluster or like hollow promises. Others said a lack of official statement or unclear stance from their company could drive them to leave the organization.
We confirmed privately with these individuals that we could publish their thoughts here, without mentioning names or companies. We’ve used descriptors they provided us with to attribute these thoughts.
Some steps forward
“My company is making a donation to up to three racial justice organizations and we’ve also had discussions about it on our weekly team call the past two weeks,” a Black project manager and creative strategist at a local tech company told us.
But they added that they wish the company would have a discussion about how to become an anti-racist company and talk through specifics. They’re not sure if that is going to happen, though.
A UX designer at small tech startup told us her company had also had brought up the topics of race and unrest, but “it hasn’t been discussed at length.”
“But it has been brought up, and efforts are currently being made to contribute development resources to open source projects via GitHub that support BLM,” she said.
Some who wrote in to the survey seem to feel positively about how their employers were handling these discussions. One employee, who works in as a nonprofit housing developer, said that their employer had been very empathetic to the staff.
“Our CEO shared a heartfelt letter and recording with all staff, and encouraged people to share with him what they might need right now — since he understands that he doesn’t have all the answers and didn’t want to implement a top-down approach,” they wrote.
“We have also made mental health resources available to staff, and let staff go home early in some of the early days of the protests so they could avoid any trouble,” they added.
Someone who identified themselves as a recent Middle-Eastern immigrant navigating the tech space here said they’d seen their fair share of racism in this country, whether it was not always as ill-intentioned or blatant as some recent instances.
However, “I can honestly say that the entire team at [employer] never made me feel foreign or alien, like I’ve sometimes felt in the two years I’ve been in this country,” they said. “Our employer empowers the team and has directed us to set aside and dedicate some hours of work to support and contribute to projects that align with initiatives dedicated to eradicating racism through open-source contributions.”
Some people wrote in to us saying that there’d been a mixed response. Maybe there was a strong anti-racism message at first, but employees are not seeing as much follow-through as initially promised.
A coordinator at a hospital here in Philadelphia wrote that their employer had initially addressed racism and civil unrest with staff.
“They had the chief diversity officer, a Black man, write a campus-wide email about his feelings regarding the murder of George Floyd which was powerful (I think particularly because he used Mr. Floyd’s death and called it what it was, a murder),” they wrote. “But otherwise, the hospital is sending out daily emails regarding any traffic delays due to protests and civil unrest. I appreciated the very [first] email from the chief diversity officer because he talked about his experiences as a Black man, which I think is something that isn’t talked about very often.”
As time has gone on, the hospital has stopped being as direct in their stance against racism and police brutality, the employee said.
“It is now a blurb in our weekly rundown emails,” they said. “There has been no additional training for staff or recommendations for discussing race in the workplace, which is very unfortunate.”
A few others wrote to us that their employer has been silent on matters of racism and the current civil unrest. Someone who identifies as white and works in IT said that as a contractor, they’d heard nothing from either company they’re working for.
“Neither company has sent out anything,” they said. “Some communications about COVID, nothing about race and protests that I’ve seen.”
And another person, who identified as a Black customer success manager at a small startup, said they too hadn’t heard anything from their leadership.
“At best, those on my team have mentioned the riots and how this will affect COVID, but nothing more,” they wrote. “Being one of two Black people at an organization of 50 people really made me worried as to if I should speak up, without having any retaliation against me.”
The employee said that they recently decided to bring the lack of communication up to their boss and are waiting to hear on where the company stands with anti-racism, or if leadership plans on taking any action.
“What comes of this will deeply impact whether I decide to remain at the organization or not,” they said.
Another person, who identified themselves as a queer woman of color and junior engineer, said that her company hasn’t addressed current events and it has been “a very isolating experience.”
“In casual conversation, the only thing discussed was the ‘riots and looting.’ I spoke up, but I feel that it is seen as neutral to talk about ‘riots and looting’ but political to bring up ‘police brutality’ and ‘systemic racism,'” she said. “Although the reality is that a group of majority-white upper-middle-class men talking about how they feel threatened by ‘riots and looting’ is also inherently political.”
From what she’s seen, there is “little to no desire” to talk about race when the team is overwhelmingly white and male, she said. It’s also a pointer to why more diversity and equity in tech is “desperately needed,” she added.
“I’m not sure how a homogenous group that is largely unaware and unversed in discussions of privilege can lead the conversation,” she wrote. “That being said, I wish that when I had spoken up, I had been seen as a resource and a leader who could help guide a conversation rather than as just a dissenting voice.”
Some resources for company leaders and employees:
- How Philly biz heads are talking to their employees and addressing unrest, this week and beyond
- To white organizational leaders: Silence is violence. Here’s what you should do now
- Leaders must ‘make real and visible efforts’ to support Black community members
David Dylan Thomas’ new book examines ways to solve cognitive bias issues in design
Temple prof Timothy Welbeck has ideas for how companies can support Black employees during and after this moment
Diversity in the workplace: If you’re going to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk
5 ways to incorporate racial equity into your hiring practices
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