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Sustainable Practices to Lift Up Black Employees

Every Black History Month is important, but as we reach new levels of awareness and understanding on racial injustice, nationally and globally, this one feels different.

To honor this month, we are identifying best practices to sustainably support Black employees, and spoke with two IBIS clients taking inspiring strides to support Black employees and racial equity in the workplace.

LaToyaJohnsonLaToya Johnson, Director, Inclusion, Diversity & Equity

Gannett, with 18,000 employees, is headquartered in McLean, VA, and focused on the future of local journalism. The consultation with IBIS includes both ready-made and custom E-Learning along with Employee Business Resource Group (ERG) support.


Carlene Alexander, Global Diversity Officer

UNFCU is a 633-person nonprofit organization headquartered in New York City that offers financial services to the members of United Nations. The consultation with IBIS includes multiple Organizational Assessments along with ERG/BRG support and consultation.

How have you seen the culture of your organization change for Black employees over the past year?

Johnson: The culture has definitely changed, mostly from the recent merger between two legacy companies at the end of 2019.

In 2020 we were a new Gannett, in combining two companies into one organization, which already presents a sense of uncertainty. Then with the added layer of the emotional, social and economic impacts of the pandemic and events highlighting a history racial injustice, systemic racism and inequalities in the Black community, all added additional layers of uncertainty.

It was important and necessary for us to focus on providing a safe place and space for employees to support resilience in an everchanging world. In our efforts to add a sense of belonging and education, we added additional resources and toolkits on how to have open, sometimes difficult essential conversations in support of our Black employees and allies to have dialogue in a safe space to talk about what was happening.

Our African-American Employee Resource Group (ERG) really partnered with us in the gathering of those resources. Other ERGs rallied in support as well, in how they pivoted their monthly meeting and events to talk about how Black employees were doing and feeling in those challenging times. They took the initiative to educate themselves and not rely on Black employees to do that education, and encouraged others to do the same. They also brought a spotlight on how important it is and okay to talk about racism and mental health, and also to regularly check in with your colleagues.

We’ve seen managers really consider how they are keeping a temperature on their team by taking the time to check in and listen. Asking questions like, “How are you doing? How was your weekend?” And sadly, sometimes, “I saw what happened on the news yesterday. How are you feeling? Do you need some time?”  We’ve worked on creating lots of moments where employees feel supported.

Alexander: The United Nations Federal Credit Union (UNFCU) is a financial cooperative committed to the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). We have taken purposeful steps to ensure that ours is a welcoming community for all.

With our career development and mentoring programs, we do our best to ensure representation and encourage our African American/Black employees to participate. They have the opportunity to gain access to targeted resources and leadership insights on the path to career advancement.

“The mentor program gave me insight and helped me broaden my perspective. I set an individual development plan that helped me focus my professional and personal goals. It helped change my mindset and made me realize that I was driver of my own success.” – UNFCU Employee Alexandra Ifill

In 2020, African American/Black staff members’ participation enriched our collective experience. These employees specifically led companywide events and profound discussions on race, inequality, and on socio-economic issues surrounding Black Lives Matter. This social justice catalyst deepened levels of understanding across UNFCU and has jumpstarted further courageous conversations.

What specific efforts have made the biggest difference in moving the needle on elevating Black employees at your organization?

Alexander: We acknowledged with great transparency that we needed to address disparities among African American/Blacks in the organization. We quickly put comprehensive and far-reaching initiatives in place to close that gap.

Our DEI Advisory Council, for example, participated in a hiring and compensation review process to ensure that our practices continue to have an inclusive lens. We ensure continuous application of our DEI lens to all talent processes including, promotions and career development to mention a few.

Above all, senior leadership’s support is key and it proved instrumental in furthering our ongoing strategic efforts to remain equitable and inclusive. All levels of the organization realize that furthering opportunities for our African American/Black employees is critical to our continued business success.

Johnson: I think our biggest impact was felt last summer, when Gannett made the public commitment to set actionable goals and targets to build and retain a workforce as diverse as our nation by 2025, as well as increased representation of People of Color in leadership positions by 30%. We want our company to be reflective of the communities we serve.

Our African American Forward ERG focuses on expanding and empowering Black Leaders at Gannett. This group provides a platform for employees of color to elevate their voices and grow their careers within a network of mentors and allies at all levels of the organization.

At Gannett, we are intent on instilling Inclusion, Diversity and Equity in our DNA – and in everything we do. As a company, we publicly stand in solidarity with Black communities as an ally in the fight against systemic racism, racial injustice and discrimination in all forms – Black Lives Matter. In our actions, we used our media platforms to educate, advocate and shine a light on injustices, utilized our Gannett Foundation program to invest and support in racial justice organizations, and evolved employee programs to educate, support and build empathy, just to name a few actions.

In our journalism, our commitment to reflecting and covering our country’s diverse communities will be bolstered by enhanced training on covering systemic racism; seminars to further educate ourselves on racial issues; and the launch of Race in America, a new hub on, to highlight and amplify our work on race and social justice.

What are your top tips for leaders trying to figure out where to start, as they create a culture in which Black employees thrive?

Alexander: We learned the importance of asking and listening. Ask your African American/Black employees about their experiences in the workplace. What tools do they need to tap their inner talent and develop professionally?

Taking action on feedback from interviews, focus groups, and surveys will enable you to gain employee trust. Putting in place initiatives to address the gaps also ensures opportunities are available. This builds capability to benchmark and measure progress.

Be transparent. We published our DEI Assessment survey results on our Intranet. All employees can express their views and they will be heard.  Most importantly, be sure you have experts in the DEI space helping.  Ask for help outside of the organization if you do not have a designated, expert resource.  This is a huge subject area, and it is tough to know where to start. Expert help can guide that decision.

Johnson: Start with building trusting relationships. It’s important for managers to build these relationships and connections on an everyday basis. Not just when something bad happens, but in a regular everyday way. Even dedicating a whole meeting every now and then to just checking in.

The manager has the biggest impact on the employee experience – it’s why people stay and why they leave as well. As a company, we are providing assistance and support in this effort by furthering investing in training for managers. We are accountable in a workplace culture that is fit and support for all.

It’s also very important to understand the makeup of your organization – and we addressed that challenge head-on. In order to better understand and serve our workplace, we engaged the assistance of our employees in launching an employee self-identification survey. It is completely voluntary and participation is confidential to the company – and goes beyond what we can pull out of our HRIS. The results will help our company and leaders improve workplace culture as well as our people programs and initiatives in identifying obstacles and breaking down any barriers to inclusion, diversity, equity and engagement.

In addition, through our Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), we can create more impactful programming, open dialogue, and other resources to meet the needs of all employees. Overall company aggregated results will be shared with our employees as well as how the data will be used to expand our inclusion, diversity and equity efforts.

Are there any hurdles or stumbling blocks you’d warn folks to look out for ahead of time?

Alexander: As with any effort to embrace change, your organization should take the long view. Some will look for immediate results and feel disappointed when they perceive the change process is too slow.

If you do not consistently communicate transparently about changes taking place, staff may lose confidence in the organization’s ability to drive the change. We go through an assessment process every 2 years.

Analysis and research, strategic planning, and process implementation take time. It is important for organizations to ensure that they measure progress.

What gets measured gets done. If organizations fail to set clear goals and measurements, there is no accountability and the needle will not move.

We set a clear course of action and established benchmarks. These included celebrating milestones along the way. We did this when we received recognition from the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) with its Organizational 2020 Residential Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Award.

Seek expert advice. The right guidance and resources are needed to drive effective change. If not managed correctly, mistrust and further alienation of African American/Black employees in the workplace can result.

Johnson: Don’t always assume that you know what people are going through and what they are feeling. Always have an open mindset. Have an awareness. Not only in the world but also in your team. There is room for education.

Educate yourself so you can understand what people are going through. There is a time to listen and a time to take action. Recognize when you need to do which of those things.

Understand what’s going on before taking action.

Also, it’s important to really be in the inclusion, diversity & equity space to quickly identify any barriers or roadblocks that could stand in the way of these efforts and address them immediately.

Share progress updates quarterly. We are transparent about that! Settings goals is great and necessary, but it’s equally as important and critical to to walk the walk as well through actions. Track that year over year, quarter over quarter progress, and then you can tell your story.

Our African American ERG launched a Black History Month campaign in celebration of Black History Month – full of Black History Facts and employee testimonials. We will continue to have similar campaigns that are focused on cultural awareness.

Cedar Pruitt, IBIS Senior Consultant since 2015, specializes in leadership and culture that allows everyone to thrive.