What It’s Like to Be a Black HR Leader in This Moment

June 25, 2020

Photo of a black woman's hands

This piece is part of our community voices series where we feature articles written by professionals in the Talent Acquisition and HR space. 

This is not my story. These are not my experiences. These comments — written by Beverly Carmichael, T. Tara Turk, Victorio Milian, Janelle Peterson, Madison Butler, and Angelique Hamilton — provide a window into the experiences of Black professionals in HR during this moment in time. All are navigating the complex intersection of protests, police brutality, and racism under the backdrop of a global pandemic that’s disproportionately impacting Black and Latinx people.

The field of HR is uniquely positioned to undo some of the systemic inequities that have been embedded in the workplace for generations. Despite this, the track record of HR departments driving social change and equity has been less than stellar, known more for protecting companies over employees and letting bad behaviors go unchecked. Could the significance of this moment lead to a different outcome?

To do so, we’ll be reliant on all HR practitioners to find their voice, to be courageous, and to speak out against systems and programs that favor those in power. It will take honest and uncomfortable discussions to make progress. 

Black HR professionals are in a unique position as they navigate their own feelings and experience, while supporting companies and employees making their own progress toward racial equity and justice. These are some of their stories about what it’s like to navigate this moment in time:

“We need to do a better job of having the hard conversations around diversity”

“Human resources is broken. As a Black woman living in the HR world, I know firsthand the unwillingness to talk about real-world events, real-world trauma. Being Black in corporate America has its own long list of struggles, but being on a People team is hard right now. We are the people that are looked to raise morale, smile, and be the cheerleaders of our organizations. 

How can I be a cheerleader when it feels like the weight of the world is collapsing on my shoulders? I made a decision a few years ago to bring all of me to corporate America and let the cards fall where they may. This means I am Black, out loud, every day. This isn’t always easy or fun. However, it’s a truth that the world deserves to see. Too often we are taught to hide our magic and shy away from our greatness to fit into corporate white spaces cultures. What we don’t talk about is how taxing “fitting in” can be. The emotional trauma is lasting, and the guilt that you carry knowing you are helping to uphold systemic racism is unbearable.

Oftentimes, organizations forget that Human Resources has the word ‘human’ in it. We are humans serving humans, uplifting humans, comforting humans. Some of these humans are Black, and it is important to recognize the real-world challenges that come with that. As companies, we need to do a better job of having the hard conversations around diversity, not just the ones that make us feel good. We have to address trauma, fear. We have to be able to not only denounce racism but be fiercely anti-racist.” — Madison Butler, VP of people and culture, Sourced Craft Cocktails

“Corporate America: If your colors are all-white, you cannot say Black Lives Matter”

“Despite a plethora of talent, not near enough African Americans are chief HR officers. The CHRO must be an advocate for diversity at the top, including recruiting African Americans to serve on the company’s executive team and its board of directors. They must not be figureheads, but rather have the courage to speak up and speak out.

Never in my lifetime has the reason for this been so clear. I was struck by a recent posting directed to corporate America. It simply said, rather than post a corporate statement expressing outrage for the discrimination and racial injustice that exists in America, show us your colors. Specifically, show a picture of your executive team and your board of directors. What color are they?

If your executive team and your board of directors does not include African Americans and you posted such a statement, you have no credibility on this issue. If your executive team and your board of directors does not include African Americans and you didn’t post a statement, at least you know you have no credibility on this issue. 

Let this moment be an awakening. It’s not too late.” — Beverly Carmichael, Leaf Group board member and former CHRO at Red Robin, Cracker Barrel, Ticketmaster, and Southwest Airlines

“I want to educate, but not convince someone that my existence is equal to theirs”

“As an HR professional — though I prefer ‘people person’ — this is the kind of change we hope to see in the world. For years we have all read hot takes, watched webinars, [and] chatted in conferences about diversity and inclusion as a thing rather than a matter of survival. 

I know people keep change going, not departments, so I do wonder ‘Why now?’ I want it to stay forever and not be [a] fad. I want us to be heard and regarded every single day. I don’t want us to be considered radical terrorists when we say our lives matter. I want to educate and not convince someone that my existence is equal to theirs.

The action we are witnessing now are actions a lot of Black folx have been dealing with since we were born. The resources we provide come out of our own experiences — as vast as they are, since there isn’t just one Black community, but several Black communities. They aren’t just slides on a social responsibility deck. Our resources have been born from self-survival and preservation. As a people professional, I’ll continue to give because that’s what I do. I just want to see these gifts finally change the world.” — T. Tara Turk, director of people, Leaf Group

“I’m swallowing down a lump in my throat to contribute on a Zoom call”

“A few weeks ago, the hardest thing was keeping my family safe from COVID-19 while thoughtfully preparing to reopen the office. My COVID-19 fears haven’t disappeared, yet there’s an added emotional load. 

It’s excruciating, having hard, tear-filled conversations with my 12-year-old and 8-year-old how some will view them without knowing their sweet, kind souls. Having the ‘talk’ about how to stay out of harm’s way, all while trying to preserve their innocence, knowing that it may not even make a difference. 

It’s heavy worrying about my hard-working husband when he leaves the house to provide for the family he cherishes and loves so deeply. And at work, even with an amazing HR leader who is making space, the job I love has had some tough days. I’m swallowing down a lump in my throat to contribute on a Zoom call. 

I’m struggling after hearing a microaggression, wondering should I pick up the burden of explaining racism, concerned that I’ll be dismissed. While I shouldn’t have to be the source of knowledge for well-meaning, non-Black folks, I do want to help my company walk the walk, put out statements that are not tone deaf, and do the work required to keep those statements from being empty. All of this takes energy. And some days, I’m exhausted.” — Janelle Peterson, people operations manager, PrecisionHawk

“The emotional labor involved in presenting a version of myself that is objectionable to those who are considered my peers is tiring”

“Being a Black HR practitioner for over 15 years has been a study in navigating different spaces, some inclusive and others not so much. For example, my day job takes place in predominantly Black/Latinx communities in New York City. As a result, I tend not to think about my race in terms of what behaviors I put on display. When I’m representing my profession in other spaces, however….

I’m considered a subject matter expert — aka [an] ‘influencer’ — in certain HR knowledge areas. As a result, I get invited to participate in various programs, from speaking engagements to conferences. In these arenas, I’m usually in the minority. This colors — pun intended — my interactions. It’s not overtly racist, per se. But the emotional labor involved in presenting a version of myself that is unobjectionable to those who are considered my peers is tiring. It was worse when I had dreadlocks. Then I was seen as ‘exotic,’ which allowed people to feel they had ‘permission’ to do ignorant things like touch them or ask how I managed to keep them clean. That these were HR professionals made it worse. 

Speaking of being an ‘influencer’: The HR profession can do a better job of whose voices it deems influential and deserving of being heard. But that’s a separate and much longer discussion.” — Victorio Milian, senior HR consultant, Humareso

“I feel disappointed… that diversity has not progressed beyond a business initiative, or nice to have”

“It’s difficult being a Black professional in HR — today more than ever before. I have witnessed an incremental change in advancing equality. Yet, the time has stood still in improving race relations.

We are at a cultural impasse in our society with the escalation of racism, discrimination, and hate. The fight against hatred requires an unwavering commitment. I feel disappointed, frustrated, and exhausted that diversity has not progressed beyond a business initiative or nice to have. 

The long-lasting battle has resulted in a fragile society tired of the persistent suppression and societal strongholds. I feel Black employees are the invisible population of corporate America. I am proud to be black and not apologetic. I have more to offer than the color of my skin as a Black woman. We can’t have unity until we do the hard work. Yes, the hard task of scratching below the surface of the contrite diversity conversations and superficial actions like potlucks and committees. Please don’t allow the actions being taken now to end as a retired hashtag or cyclical trend. Black lives matter.” — Angelique Hamilton, chief coaching officer, HR Chique Group

This post was originally published on Fast Company.

Lars Schmidt is the founder of Amplify, an HR executive search and talent consultancy. He explores modern HR & recruiting practices in regular Fast Company and Forbes columns and his podcast, 21st Century HR.

*Photo from Death to the Stock Photo

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