8 Actions That Help Black Colleagues Get Ahead At Work

Don't just make a commitment to supporting Black colleagues. Do the work.
To be a true ally to Black colleagues, back up your commitment to racial diversity and support with action. You cannot rely on your company’s best intentions to help Black people overcome career hurdles.
To be a true ally to Black colleagues, back up your commitment to racial diversity and support with action. You cannot rely on your company’s best intentions to help Black people overcome career hurdles.

Following demonstrations against the police killings of Black people, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, companies across America are sharing words in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

But being a true ally to a Black colleague means voicing more than words of support or announcing yet another generic commitment to diversity. It means backing it up with individual action.

Pamela Newkirk, a journalist and author of “Diversity, Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business,” said it’s easier for people to look at the more blatant forms of racism than it is for them to question how their own actions may perpetuate racial inequality.

“I think people are beginning to question, ‘Why is it that I work in a place that is pretty much all white? Why is it that I’ve never gone outside of my own circle to make sure that people who don’t look like me have opportunities? What can I do?’” Newkirk said.

Despite anti-discrimination laws, diversity initiatives and racial bias trainings, stats show that these efforts are failing Black Americans. Only 8% of Black professionals hold white-collar jobs, and only 3.2% become senior management, as detailed by the 2019 study “Being Black in Corporate America” by the nonprofit Center for Talent Innovation. Only four companies in the Fortune 500 –– Lowe’s, Merck, TIAA and Tapestry –– are run by Black CEOs.

On top of doing their jobs, Black professionals face racial prejudice in the workplace and are often tasked with the extra work of addressing these disparities of representation by serving on diversity committees, hiring panels and task forces.

Just because the issues are systemic doesn’t mean you can sit it out, no matter who you are. Every employee has a role in making a workplace fair for all, and you can take concrete action that promotes and advances a Black colleague’s success.

1. Share what you earn.

One way for colleagues of Black professionals to address the racial pay gap is to be transparent about pay even when companies aren’t. Discussing salary with peers is part of being a good ally, said Minda Harts, founder of The Memo LLC, a career development company for women of color.

“If I knew one of my colleagues was not making a certain amount of money that they should, I would want them to know,” Harts said. “I wouldn’t want to be in the dark about that.”

2. Measure pay, promotion, hiring and retention gaps across race, and be held accountable.

On a company level, you cannot fix racial gaps in pay, hiring and promotions until you have data to measure it. Companies should be documenting diversity metrics like pay, retention and promotions across race, Harts said, and make it available for job applicants.

“I think there should be stats available when a Black applicant asks, ‘What are your metrics for diversity and inclusion?’ that every company should be tracking the retention, and then also the pay,” Harts said.

Companies also need to center the voices of Black employees in discussions of this accountability to diversity, too, so that decisions are not made in an echo chamber. “You need to actually have conversations with Black employees to find out what they need from you,” Harts said.

CEOs have “been committed to diversity and inclusion and equity, and we haven’t seen anything. I think it’s going to be really important for Black employees to hold their leaders accountable to change,” Harts said.

3. Advocate for Black colleagues to get the high-profile assignments necessary for promotions.

When you look at your organization, notice who is getting the high-profile assignments that lead to acclaim and promotions. Chances are, Black women are getting sidelined.

A 2018 LeanIn.org survey found that Black women were far less likely to feel they had an equal opportunity to grow and advance, and were less likely to think the best opportunities went to the most deserving employees, compared with all men and women who were white, lesbian, Latina or Asian.

To fix the lack of equal access to high-profile assignments, legal scholars Joan C. Williams and Marina Multhaup proposed two solutions in Harvard Business Review. One: Managers need to assess which team members are volunteering for office housework ― the routine tasks that don’t lead to promotions ― such as taking notes, scheduling meetings and ordering food. Once they know, managers need to recognize that there can be a social pressure to say yes when it’s an option to volunteer, and instead make everyone take turns doing it.

Two: Make high-profile assignments an option for all eligible employees, “not just the ones who come to mind first or who ask to do it,” Williams and Multhaup wrote.

4. Be a sponsor to a Black colleague’s career.

A mentor can give colleagues general advice. A sponsor is someone, usually within your organization, who is “spending their valuable political and social capital on you,” as Carla Harris, a vice chair, managing director and senior client adviser at Morgan Stanley, put it in a TED talk.

To be a sponsor, you need to have a seat at the decision-making table, you need to have exposure to the colleague’s work in order to have credibility behind closed doors, and you need to have power, Harris said.

If you fit this profile, you have the ability to speak up for a Black colleague’s advancement in your organization, whether it’s a promotion, a raise or a high-profile assignment, and you should take advantage of this power to identify Black co-workers to sponsor.

5. If you’re non-Black leader in power, you can give up your seat.

If you’re a leader, there is power in yielding it to someone else. That’s another way to get a Black colleague in your field to the decision-making table. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian recently resigned from his company’s board and specifically asked to be replaced with a Black candidate. “I believe resignation can actually be an act of leadership from people in power right now,” he wrote.

On Wednesday, Reddit replaced Ohanian with Black tech entrepreneur and Y Combinator CEO Michael Seibel.

6. Get Black colleagues more speaking opportunities to share expertise.

Whenever you go to a conference or a panel, notice who else is invited.

“Free conference tickets don’t make up for not having a single Black speaker,” wrote Tiffani Ashley Bell, founding executive director of Human Utility, a nonprofit increasing water affordability in the U.S., in a Marker post. “Event organizers, everybody sees through the, ‘We asked, but they weren’t available’ shtick. Plan ahead and find somebody else.“

If you are a non-Black person who notices the lack of Black professionals in these or other kinds of corporate events, call it out publicly. Designer Timothy Goodman said he makes inclusivity part of his speaking agreement.

“I always give them a list of talented people with speaking experience ― and even after they say yes, I’ve had to threaten to pull out just weeks before a conference starts when I see the speakers list is still super unbalanced,” Goodman said in an Instagram post. “The lazy curation and knee-jerk reaction to invite the same ol’ people is very unfortunate. And what’s becoming increasing frustrating are all those who say yes to these conferences every year without making this a point.”

7. Shout out your Black colleagues’ work.

“Making it a point to shout out your colleague or co-worker during a team meeting, those types of things really go a long way,” said career coach Latesha Byrd.

If you’re working on a project, and you notice that you get credit for it but your Black colleague doesn’t, give credit where it’s due with language like, “Oh, you know such-and-such was very instrumental in this” or “They actually did X, Y and Z,” Byrd said.

8. Check the internal biases you have toward Black colleagues at work.

You have a responsibility to interrogate the assumptions you could be holding against Black colleagues.

“If you’re not used to engaging and building authentic relationships with people of color or Black employees, then you have these assumptions about who they are,” Harts said.

Black women in particular deal with “double jeopardy,” or biases against their gender and race, as detailed by a report from the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law that was co-authored by the center’s director, Joan C. Williams.

Byrd said her Black clients are commonly confronted with the false assumptions that they are aggressive if they disagree or standoffish if they don’t speak up out of fear of coming across as aggressive. “Let’s say we disagree with someone in a meeting. We are told that we’re aggressive. We’re told that we’re mean, we’re rude. Those are the biggest ones that I see,” Byrd said. “We need to learn how to engage with each other in healthy conversation instead of thinking we’re being confrontational.”

Williams’s report found that Black women were also more likely than other women to report a sense of bleak isolation at work.

“When white people actually are in a room with an African American, they come with all the baggage, all those years of stereotypes, and so the reality of African Americans is not known to many whites, and so you still have this barrier,” Newkirk said.

She said she experienced this herself in a newsroom where she was the only Black professional.

“For months, no one spoke to me, and one month, one of my colleagues said pretty much the same thing, [that] he didn’t know what to say, and I said, ‘What about hello?’” Newkirk said.