Getting Curious in the Workplace

As a business, can you respect the resilience, acknowledge the vulnerability, and remain open and curious to your black employees, colleagues and peers?

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Amid the country's political and moral crisis, many people within the Black community are struggling with the after-effects of George Floyd. Many have felt their feelings erased in certain social groups from conversations on Black Lives Matter.  For many black people, systemic discrimination has restricted access to resources and advancement, especially in work settings. 

The guide that follows is a tangible resource that people can share with their employers, peers and colleagues, to provide them with insight and guidance about issues that they might not otherwise have.   It is not exhaustive and it aims to provide some necessary direction and considerations when working together with black employees, peers and colleagues who seek support, especially during a difficult time.

The survival of black people is political, which many have witnessed recently in the Windrush debacle. As a therapist, I do not shy away from systemic challenges and encourage employers of all backgrounds to consider understanding the resistance, the discomfort and the unknowingness when supporting their black employees.

1. Safety

By creating a supportive working environment encourages black employees to build a sense of trust and confidence; to have difficult conversations. Within all work environments, there can be areas of distrust in engaging with employers and peers, for fear of being fired and victimised.   Openness, safety and security are fundamental. It's essential as a business to be clear in your support for your employees and peers and to recognise this is not a tick box exercise.

  1. Workplace Stress

Within the black community, there is a stigma around engaging in mental health services. Feelings of shame and pain are common and often show up in the form of stress in the workplace. Sadly, black employees expressing their experiences with their line managers and colleagues often expect disconnect and judgment. As a business, be aware of how you communicate verbally and nonverbally and be present with an open mind. 

  1. Offering Support

Recognise that while you may feel a need to help find a solution to an individual's problem, the business role is to provide support where you can. Black people are seen as unnerved, strong and unaffected.  They often have to prove that they are hurting or experiencing pain to be seen and understood. As a business, do not expect your black employees and colleagues to educate you on the systems and issues that they face. Educate yourself on the complexities.

  1. Language

Poor terminology can be dehumanising in nature. Avoid reacting to your black employee's and colleagues' stories with phrases such as "I didn't know you are" or "You don't look ."

Such phrases are illustrative of their experience of being excluded or erased from general conversation.  Get comfortable with hearing and using the words "Black," "Afro-Caribbean," "African", "Mixed Race". Shying away from these terms further perpetuates negativity about racial identity, which can create a rift in the work environment.   Refrain from further perpetuating the narrative of "good vs. bad" in expressing support for your employees. Let's remember that not all protestors are bad.  As a business, unless your black employee or colleague brings up current events, avoid asking them for their opinion on recent news and things you may have heard, as this can be triggering.

  1. Hierarchy of Needs

Black employees are doubly vulnerable to racist and xenophobic practices that discriminate against their black skin. Understand that for an employee; there is no way to distinguish between the issues that arise from being black and those that arise from just being.  It is maybe tempting to put issues affecting black people and how they view the world into categories. However, while coping with being black is an issue of concern, it is inaccurate to assume that it is the only problem your employee or colleague is dealing with.  Being black may not be the main issue causing your employees distress. Your employees may also be coping with how to get their basic needs met, no access to healthcare, a family member in failing health, sexuality, relationships, gender identity, disabilities, religious and cultural identities, being exploited or threatened past or current traumas.  As a business, you may want to consider reviewing your company wellbeing resources.

  1. Knowledge

Understandably, you, as an employer, may want to know more about your black employees. Understanding your employees and colleague helps you in developing rapport. You may be interested in knowing your employees' heritage and if they know much about their "culture of origin." Get curious but not intrusive. Storytelling can be an exhausting and re-traumatising in itself. As a business, you maybe curious or fascinated or wanting to make progress with the best of intentions, so asking a black employee or colleague to share their story, before they are ready can be detrimental to their wellbeing.

As a business, can you respect the resilience, acknowledge the vulnerability, and remain open and curious to your black employees, colleagues and peers?

Go Well



Samantha Carbon UKCP Psychotherapist

Samantha Carbon is a psychotherapist running a private practice. Following a background in the financial industry, Samantha set out to follow her true passion and pursue her training as a psychotherapist. Today, Samantha assists people in the process of finding the peace of mind they deserve. In particular she works with individuals with a history of addictive behaviours such as alcohol, drugs, sex & gambling. She works with individuals who experience depression, anxiety, loss, work related stresses and gender dysphoria, as well as couples. She is dedicated to supporting people to identify their self-worth and improve the quality of their lives. She works with corporates in understanding workplace diversity, understanding intolerances and biases.