6 Ways to Build a Race-Friendly Workplace for Black Professionals

In post-Obama America, many caucasian people assumed racial issues were decidedly behind us. With the recent collective upheaval, this has been proven untrue.  In this article, I’ll outline some ideas on how best to prepare a comfortable and safe law firm environment for black professionals. 

6 Ways to Build a Race-Friendly Workplace for Black Professionals

Inspire your firm to talk about race

Racism, in its many forms, can be extremely detrimental to the wellbeing of your legal professionals. As with any other workplace conflict (or potential conflict), a discussion is encouraged and sometimes mandated. Creating a safe discussion on race in the workplace is vital in order to understand both the issues present in your firm as well as how to improve upon your current internal policies. 

It is necessary to have these discussions in a modern, growth-centric law firm. It shows your black employees their presence is valued, they provide a unique contribution to the firm, and the company cares about their safety and workplace happiness. 

Being the facilitator of a conversation on race means the following:

  • Set an agenda. Explain what this discussion will include and what it will not include (this means setting behavioral expectations for all staff).
  • Invite your black employees to speak on their experiences. Allow them to decide if they want to or not.
  • Inspire a curiosity-centric meeting. Encourage your white staff to ask respectful, honest questions about racist experiences. 
  • Keep a respectful understanding that this subject is hard for many to talk about.

Encourage White Employees To Participate

Often what happens with conversations on race is white people feel the need to be silent. Since a conversation requires two different points of view, white people will need to be active participants.

The burden of change is not just black employees’ responsibility. Since racial diversity is a consistent issue in the legal world, and all races experience the effects of racial tension, encouraging white employees to use their status as ‘the majority’ to initiate the conversation is essential.

It’s important to address the fact that this conversation will NOT be easy, comfortable or without missteps. As with any conversation, the overall goal should be empathy and understanding.  

Dissect Corporate Culture to Address Systemic Issues

In very recent times, some law firms have created their own diversity and inclusion programs in an effort to diversify their hiring strategies. Although well-intentioned, their effectiveness seems limited.

The issue lies with the way in which black employees are included in company culture. Law firms recruit and hire them, which often asks for their implicit acceptance of the existing culture and system. This is problematic as organizations may have systemic inequalities built into their culture. Instead of discarding these inequalities, they seem to focus more on “managing blackness”.

Firms need to address the inequalities in their policies, adapt culturally inclusive policies in their place, and ask new recruits for their feedback. 

Some effective ways to do this are:

  • Conducting anonymous demographic-centric surveys to take the temperature of the existing culture. 
  • Creating an “open door” policy on cultural criticism for all employees.
  • Incorporating a discussion on this issue within the interview process. 

Racial Bias Training for Recruitment Managers

As so much of a company's environment depends on the employees themselves, the recruiting team and their processes are vital in understanding and correcting your firm’s culture. Recruitment managers must go through training to vett their current practices to identify and remove all racial biases. The recruitment team should be diverse in order to provide continuous internal feedback. This will also send an explicit message to black applicants that this firm welcomes talent of all races.

Since diversity pertains to several ways of life, the recruitment process should identify and remove all biases in order to have an effectively inclusive program. 

Create an Environment Where Black Employees Can Be Themselves

In the same vein as #4, there have been several accounts of black employees feeling the need to assimilate to white culture in the workplace. As a white employee, this might not be as obvious, but the suppression of their personal selves and not feeling invited to be authentic is systemic racism.

As with any firm, it's important for every individual to feel compelled and inspired to be a part of the team. Creating the opportunity for your black employees to be themselves in their entirety at work can be incredibly empowering. Not only will it have profound personal effects, it will help them understand the value of their contributions to the firm, and help them to find more of their strengths in their positions. 

Firms can create this by:

  • Organizing support systems for black employees. This can take the form of a formal mentorship program or even just a regular meeting with other black professionals. 
  • Encouraging teams to take time for bonding activities and outings between managers and employees. This will help boost inspiration and camaraderie.
  • Officially celebrating diversity. Black Pride month should be recognized with an event or celebration of some kind. Understand what your black employees need to feel seen.   

Recognize the Managerial Mindset on Likeness

Managers need self-awareness in order to understand how they evaluate their employees' growth and potential. Often people will help fastrack those who are most like themselves. This can have obvious racial repercussions since most executives in the legal industry are white. 

In order to be cognizant on the racial bias potential, managers should:

  • Go through racial bias training to identify and understand their own biases.
  • Gather other managers’ feedback on their means of supporting their employees.
  • Have a standardized and explicit process (free of racial biases) for advancing employees. This should be decided upon by the C-level and HR employees.

Creating an environment that’s encouraging and safe for black professionals means a lot of change will need to happen. The improvements and the work done will bring the irreplaceable benefit of unique knowledge, insight and cultural diversity.

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