While HR leaders have long wrestled with how to address conversations on racial inequality in the workplace, the sweeping racial justice protests happening around the nation are placing a spotlight perhaps not seen in years on the issue. Experts say it’s one that employers, and HR leaders in particular, cannot ignore.

HRE spoke with three thought leaders about the impact of the nation’s current tenor on HR’s priorities: Anne Fulton, CEO of FUEL50; Paul Rubenstein, chief people officer at Visier; and Jill Smart, president of the National Academy of Human Resources.

HRE: What should HR leaders be doing right now to communicate with their workforces about the racial tensions, especially if they’re in the process of returning to workplaces?

Fulton: We are facing unprecedented circumstances, and HR leaders are at the forefront of communication between an organization and its employees. There is a lot of uncertainty, so the best approach is transparency and flexibility. Communicate openly with your team and understand that tomorrow may look completely different from today. Also, make time to listen to any employee concerns, so they can be addressed. It will help employees feel heard and make it easier to move forward together. And most importantly, show empathy and practice the basics of emotional intelligence during these tumultuous times.

Related: What does the social unrest mean for HR leaders?

Rubenstein: These protests go beyond politics—this is about people being heard. Employees are returning to a workplace where the need for feeling safe and secure has drastically changed around health, physical and economic security. CHROs can remind everyone that listening is the foundation of great leadership and mutual respect.

Smart: It is critical that HR leaders be extremely vocal about how we feel the pain that this injustice has inflicted on our nation, including our employees, customers and clients, vendors, etc. We need to be steadfast in leading the way in believing that every individual’s voice, especially when heard as one united voice with one united message, is needed to navigate a way to change the trajectory on racism and eliminate these so unnecessary actions. Change starts with every individual, and organizations need to support and empower their people to make the changes we need, and be candid in words and actions that their organizations have ZERO tolerance for any racism, discrimination or injustice.

HRE: How do you think the protests may shift approaches to diversity and inclusion going forward?  

Fulton: Companies have the power to implement real change by looking at their hiring and management processes. There is power in diversity, and organizations that aren’t addressing diversity and inclusion properly in their hiring practices will be left behind. Talent will demand more from their employers, and companies will be held accountable more than ever for how they address diversity and inclusion.

We saw a dramatic shift in employee voice in the last two years with the advent of #MeToo, and now we are seeing yet again that we have to listen to our people, more acutely than ever and ensure our talent practices are fair, transparent and inclusive. It could not be more important. No more exclusive power players by one sector over another; we believe it is time for democratic practices and democratic talent practices that promote equality and fairness for all our citizens.

Paul Rubenstein

Rubenstein: While the workplace can’t right all the injustice in the world, we can create organizations where people are treated fairly and decisions are just. We need to focus on not losing strides made the past few years with improving diversity and inclusion. The data shows women and minorities have been the hardest hit during the pandemic, so it’s never been a more important time to strengthen the commitment to an inclusive workplace. Use your data, find the patterns, help people see what a better future could look like—and get there … now.

Smart: This senseless and disturbing killing of a black man has deepened the wounds from other similar senseless killings. I can only hope that the fact that this nation is witnessing over and over again the whole event firsthand will be the event that finally changes our course to one of real and impactful change. And this needs to start in each and every one of our organizations. Today I read a statement from the president of the University of Illinois System, Tim Killeen, that said “Let us make this outrageous act of aggression a pivotal point in history that begins to reverse generations of systemic racism and discrimination.” I hope that pivot will start in each of our own organizations by recommitting and ACTING to achieve inclusion, equity and justice.


Check back for more from HR leaders and how they’re responding to the social unrest. If you’re an HR leader with ideas to contribute, contact us at hreletters@lrp.com.