Company Culture
Diversity & Inclusion
Employee Experience
20 min read

One Black employee’s answer to “How can I help?”


Alica Forneret

Writer, Culture Amp

Reading Time: 20 minutes

As a part of our commitment to helping our customers and community build equitable organizations, we’re sharing guidance on how you can begin to practice anti-racism in your life and work. A key part of allyship is listening to underrepresented voices, and in this instance requires centering and prioritizing Black people’s specifically. To that end, this piece reflects the author (a Culture Amp content writer)’s authentic voice and Culture Amp stands behind the ideas and calls to action here.

You might be reading this if you

  • Asked your Black colleague “What can I do to help?” (If they sent you this in response, I’m proud of them for doing so)
  • Asked your non-Black colleague “Ugh what are we supposed to even do right now?”
  • Posted in some random Slack channel saying “Things are so wild right now! Plz LMK how I can help!”
  • Saw something some HR person put on your LinkedIn feed (omg tell them Thank you!)
  • Googled some stuff and this came up

All these are valid reasons and I’m glad you’re here. I created this resource because I know that as a Black professional emerging out of weeks of working, crying, reading the news, yelling into the ether, protesting, and being further traumatized by horrible people or videos on the internet… it’s exhausting to start work on Monday morning. Especially when I’m already struggling to focus and stay engaged. 

Truthfully, I took one Friday off to “call in Black” and found that I spent most of the weekend reading messages and posts from other Black people about How. Truly. Exhausted. They. Are. Resources are slim. Managers are ill-equipped. And the stress and isolation of working from home aren’t helping.

So what I did was put together a list of guides and books to read, suggestions to try out, and other actions that non-Black professionals can take, ideally in partnership with HR teams. I wrote this to make sure that you are matching your intention to help with your impact on your Black teammate(s).

The purpose of this resource

This was built so that Black professionals could easily send something to their non-Black colleagues who ask “What can I do?” or “Omg this weekend was so hard for me, it must have been hard for you too. Can we talk? I’m so sad. How can I help?”

Personally, my answer lately has been “TBH I’m doing horrible, thx for asking” then I try to get back to work. Now I’m hoping that a link to this article will suffice.

I also built it as something non-Black professionals can read themselves and send to their non-Black colleagues. Has your CEO said, “I have no idea what to do, but I hope everyone is okay out there!”? Has your HR department got a long way to go before they’ll be a safe place for BIPOC employees, in general? Have you messaged all of your Black colleagues asking how they’re doing? Do you feel like you want to help but have no idea where to start? Yayyy – this is somewhere! However, this isn’t: 

  • A one-stop-shop for solutions that’ll fix all of your employees’ issues related to the current unrest (that resource does not exist; this is just a starting point and there’s deep, long-term work to be done
  • A listicle of “# things you should or shouldn’t say to your Black coworkers” (this isn’t about how you should change the way you communicate with them; it’s about how you can take action without exhausting them further)
  • A message from all Black employees everywhere. I have the privilege to use my voice on this platform, but I am not speaking for everyone. Please keep this in mind, as what you utilize or act on from this list might be a great support for one team or person and inadequate for another

A couple things to know before you act

  1. Consider your intention and avoid performative allyship.
    If you are going to share this resource, PLEASE think first about what your intention is when posting it on Social. Are you trying to look #WokeAF because #BlackLivesMatter or are you trying to amplify this piece because you legit just want more people to feel safe at work? Be thoughtful about how and why you share this resource. Sharing it directly with the people that need it may be the best option. (But, of course, if you can be thoughtful, please share this widely.)
  2. Creating “safe spaces” does not automatically mean that BIPOC will be safe in them.
    There are some professionals listed below that can help you figure out how to make these spaces – both digital and in-person – as safe as you can. Here’s a resource to help you start to understand what safe spaces truly are. In addition to getting external support, it is important to include the input, testimonials, insight of your Black and POC employees in the strategies that are meant to serve them. 
  3. Pay people for the work they’re doing.
    The professionals listed below are working very, very, very hard to create these resources, workshops, books, and companies. They’re crying at their computers. They’re running healing circles and holding space for others. They’re in the streets getting attacked and exhausted. They are also drowning in requests asking to “pick their brains” for free or the price of a coffee. Just pay them what you would pay any expert on digital strategy (at minimum). 
  4. Know that you can’t do ALL THE THINGS (but you really should do something).
    I say this all the time when people ask me about supporting grieving friends: know that it’s okay to not have the capacity to do everything on this list this week. Life is hard right now. That isn’t an excuse to do nothing, but it’s also not an ask of you to do *ALL the things*. Think about what you can and are willing to do with good intentions and effort. 
  5. Educate yourself from multiple angles and perspectives.
    I’ve included a list of resources so that no one who reads this can say, “Yeeeeah but that’s like… what one random lady at [X kind of company] in [X country] suggested. Will this really work for us?” Recognize that I am NOT the first person to be pushing this info out into the world and that there are many, many resources at your fingertips. Continue to educate yourself from different perspectives when you finish this piece.
  6. If there are Black people working at your company, it is likely that they’re feeling ~ some kind of way ~ right now.
    They will NOT all be feeling exactly the same, be impacted the same way, or have the same answers/opinions about what is going on. Many will not know what to say, how to talk to you about these issues, feel safe going to HR, or feel supported by their colleagues. Some will never be able to tell you, “You know what, I’m actually feeling really freakin’ terrible right now and I wish I could take a week off and get away from you all.” But know that the experiences they’re having might very well be painful, isolating, and frustrating in ways that you could never imagine.

I think one of the biggest challenges Black employees are faced with right now is how to maintain some semblance of sanity when current events are so utterly destabilizing. A public health crisis (that’s disproportionately ravaging their community), a related economic crisis (that emperils the most vulnerable), and a string of gut-wrenching killings (many of which have been documented in horrifying detail on video) all serve as bleak reminders of America’s deeply racist legacy.

– Willie Jackson, Consultant and facilitator


Okay, now here’s a bunch of things you can do

  1. Educate yourself

It is NOT your BIPOC (and especially not your Black) employees’/coworkers’/etc. job to explain things to you. Remember, they’re not getting paid for it. In fact, asking them to do so is burdening them further. “Executive leadership and HR teams must realize that this isn’t a quick fix or check the box,” said Anthony Ware, Founder of Mental Wealth. “They must put in the consistent work to understand the real world dynamics that impact the lives of Black employees. Leadership must recognize that it’s not the responsibility of the Black employees to educate leadership about the plight of Black people.”

In addition to that, there is no script they can share with you that will work in every situation where someone at your company does something racist. There is no template for how to respond in every instance of oppression. 

When you accept that you might have to figure things out on your own, you should also accept that you won’t get everything right. And you have to be ok with that. You might still – despite your good intentions – say hurtful, racist, sexist, homophobic, or ignorant things. This is not a time for you to get paralyzed by imperfection, but rather it’s a time to be inspired and show effort.

The links below aren’t intended to help you figure out exactly what to say; rather, they’re here to make you start the internal work you need to do in order to create a culturally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually safe space for your Black coworkers. They’re here to make you think before you speak, act, and organize.

Teach yourself about Whiteness, White fragility, and racism:

Forfeit a company-wide happy hour, stand-up, or all-hands to “unlearn” together:

Read, listen, or watch:

In short, ask the internet before you ask your Black coworker. Oh my goodness – stop asking them to tell you what the BI in BIPOC stands for. Stop asking them if they want to talk to you about how they’re feeling if they have told you five times that they don’t. Stop asking them what you can do or where you can donate money or how you can support. 

Here. Look something up.

2. Give Black people space and time to feel things

Create an Employee Resource Group (ERG)

The BIPOC ERG Slack channel at my current company is the only place that I feel truly comfortable feeling ALL of my feels. It is the group that organizes, comforts, strategizes, creates space, and feels healing during the long workdays when I stare at my computer screen and think, “How is it 5pm and I’m still crying?” 

“Daily exposure to [traumatizing] comments, whether on social media or company Slack channels, makes Black Americans feel that they are living in a world that has no empathy for people like them. In short, Black employees need specific support right now because without it, the workplace will be seen as just another institution that compounds the daily trauma of surviving in a racist society,” said Lily Zheng, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Consultant and Executive Coach 

Creating an ERG could provide your colleagues with safe spaces to connect, find community, share resources, and vent. They are also a space for people to strategize to create change within an organization. But before you start an ERG, look into how you can make them safe spaces for people. Just starting a private channel won’t be enough, so here are a few articles about how to start and support ERGs:

Provide access to trauma-informed, culturally-specific therapy and mental health resources 


Virtually every Black person who has heard of the police killing of George Floyd has seen an image or watched a video of him – or if not him, then Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and so many others – dying at the hands of the police. The trauma of watching these videos, seeing these images, and hearing through word-of-mouth of the off-camera killings just like them is devastating to both mental health, causing stress, fear, anger, and anxiety, and physical health, causing eating and sleeping disorders, high blood pressure, and heart problems. Your Black employees aren’t viewing this as an isolated incident. They’re responding to this as the latest terrifying example of the danger that comes from merely existing in the world as Black.

– Lily Zheng, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Consultant and Executive Coach


Give Black people time off to attend therapy, memorials, support groups, or REST

What your employees are experiencing right now can be categorized as trauma and grief. “Hearing about, reading about, or witnessing trauma can immediately cause PTSD symptoms to arise in the witness/viewer. This is referred to as Secondary Traumatic Stress,” said Taryn Hughes, Founding CEO of Forest Hughes & Associates.

“The viewer’s body and nervous system feel the terror and react as if they are in the same danger. This effect is compounded when the viewer is a member of the same targeted group. Their sense of safety and trust is immediately shattered and the amplified danger turns on the switch for hyper- or hypo-arousal, meaning that that PTSD stress dysregulates their systems to the point where is often disrupts sleep, their ability to rest and digest, and relax and restore.”

Of course, it’s not as easy as just telling someone to take the day off. A day off or monthly therapy sessions won’t alleviate all of the stress or fix all of the problems, but it can be important in curbing burnout or mental health impacts of working through trauma.

“The ways in which we heal from trauma involves creating a deeper mind-body connection by addressing the internal and unresolved trauma. We need space, time, patience and support to begin healing from trauma. We need others to understand, listen, be empathic, concerned, and caring. Healing from trauma takes time and requires attention, diligence and commitment,” says Rajkumari Neogy, Executive and Epigenetic Coach.

If you encourage employees to take time to heal or rest, you’ll need to work with your team to understand why the time is needed – to consider how workloads will be managed while people are gone and how workloads will be managed when employees return. I reached out to some professionals who are doing work in this space to help Black professionals “call in Black”, take time to rest, or go to therapy in the middle of the workday.

If you’re not sure how to get buy-in, here’s a script:

Dear NAME,

I know that now must be an incredibly busy time, but I want to call attention to the unique and extreme trauma affecting the Black community and my Black teammates right now. [While we’ve messaged that folks should take time,] I believe that we should give them permission to “call in Black” in order to restore and heal (as any of us would need in a situation where we’ve experienced nearly unbearable loss and continue to do so).

I know you might have complex questions about precedents, or concerns about this feeling political. In this moment, what I’m asking is:
– For the right representative to send information on leave options to Black employees

– For managers of Black employees to reach out and give permission for a specific leave (e.g., “Why don’t you take Friday off? I’d like to work with you on how to create space for you to do that.”)

– For our leadership to acknowledge these events, share their personal commitments to education and action, and a plan for ongoing support of Black employees

Here are some resources for details, and I’d love to know how I can help this process.

Sincerely,
YOUR NAME


We have the responsibility to examine current policies in place around hiring processes, workplace culture, and employee support systems. Due to the pandemic, current climate of job insecurity, and many workforces operating from home, employees may be afraid to take time off. Now would be a great time to remind employees of your organization’s policies around paid time off and encourage them to take it as needed and prioritize rest and their own self-care.

– Julia Porter, SHRM-CP


3. Create internal resources for your Black employees

Don’t tell people you’re an ally, show them that you’re an accomplice. Do the work without them having to ask. Make it comprehensive, accessible, and don’t ask for a pat on the back when it’s done. Just be fulfilled by serving your people.

  • Make sure your handbook is accessible and contains useful information: ensure that details on benefits (especially mental health), your Employee Assistance Program (EAP), and anti-discrimination policies and procedures are highlighted and communicated to employees.
  • Create a guide for working while grieving: “These issues are of course deeply connected and interrelated, and thousands of black employees across the nation this week are in the unenviable position of simultaneously grieving and holding space for the grief of others, all the while knowing that it’s only a matter of time before they’re made aware of the next human turned hashtag,” says Willie Jackson. One of the hardest things about grieving is finding the words to express exactly what you’re experiencing. Providing grief support to your team can help them start articulating their needs and capacity.

4. Support Black employees to grow their networks and upskill 

Yes, things are painful, political, and stressful right now. But many of us still have to go to work anyway. Acknowledging the pain is important, but so is helping people continue to grow their careers in the midst of crisis. You might have to lay people off tomorrow. You might be able to give people a huge promotion at the end of this. Regardless, the further Black people can get today will directly impact how we’re able to access career opportunities in this uncertain future (and make up for opportunities we’ve missed or been denied along the way).

Note: when designing programs or resources to support Black professionals, ensure that you aren’t patronizing or pitying, but professional and intentional. It is harmful when a manager half-heartedly performs support and inflicts further pain by making someone feel less than them. (We’ve written an article on how you can empower diverse teams, if you’re a manager eager to learn.) It is harmful when an HR rep’ starts every conversation by saying “I’m not a diversity and inclusion expert but if you just let me know what I’m doing wrong as we go, we can both learn!” It is harmful when a colleague says they want to “do anything to help” but haven’t educated themselves enough to figure out where they can start, leaving Black people to do the work of asking for specific resources or support (again). 

Prioritize supporting the Black employees you’ve laid off 

If you’ve had layoffs, you might have let go of some Black employees. Find ways to give them support after they’ve left your company. Network with and for them. Make introductions, introduce them to external communities, find out who is hiring, and keep their email addresses easily accessible. Offer to write thoughtful letters of recommendation or LinkedIn endorsements. 

Plan 1:1’s to learn what each Black employee’s goals are (then create a pathway for them to achieve those goals)

This might seem basic, but it’s important. Black people are very often not supported in growing their careers, and in many cases aren’t sponsored by senior leadership. To support Black employees in reaching their potential:

  • Schedule an hour to talk about the employee’s goals and current skills
  • Support them in identifying what skills they need to develop in order to achieve that outcome
  • Make a plan to grow their skills and identify relevant projects through which they can demonstrate them (this may include making introductions to experts, which I highly recommend you do)
  • Where relevant, provide budget for learning resources for/from BIPOC
  • Schedule regular check-ins to see how else you can support
  • Commit to giving regular praise and constructive feedback (focused on their skills, not personalities)

5. Find a consultant – you don’t have to do this alone

While reactive anti-racism training shows your employees that you want to support them, and that you recognize you can’t solve everything on your own, you should be thoughtful about who you hire and why. While you are looking for educators, make an effort to prioritize Black-owned consultancies and companies. Michelle Kim, CEO of Awaken, has compiled a list you can consult here

But hiring someone to do corporate trauma-focused, anti-racist consultations is not the same as hiring a consultant to develop a comprehensive, structural strategy to identify and remove racism in your organization.

For leadership, it’ll take deep research, more effort than some people might expect, and vulnerability. And for the employees, it’ll take adjustment to having some conversations they don’t know how to have – especially at work. From experience, I can tell you that it’s hard to go from a four-hour session on trauma to four more hours of cleaning spreadsheets or scheduling social media posts. So here are a few things to better prepare you and your team for diving into the work together:

  • Ensure that you respect the third-party’s business practices: If they ask to be paid, pay them. If they have clauses in their contract about confidentiality, respect them. And if they invite you to do things that are uncomfortable, trust that you hired them as an expert for a reason. 
  • Commit to the (likely long) road ahead: a commitment to changing deep systematic issues within your organization will probably take time. You won’t have a single session on “anti-racism 101” and suddenly solve everything. Recognizing that the work is long-term and involves layers of effort and change will allow you to show your employees that you are wholly bought in.
  • Be prepared to potentially be uncomfortable as non-Black people: bringing in a third-party doesn’t mean that they’ll do all of the work for your team. It means that they’re the experts to help guide you through the process. You might get uncomfortable, you might have to admit failures, and you might have to cry a bit! But that’s okay and part of the work. Just be ready.
  • Consider the impact it will have on your employees: Hopefully, it’ll have a great impact and make your workplace safer and more enjoyable. Unfortunately, it could cause harm and trauma if your whole team isn’t ready to be challenged or vulnerable. Consider setting up safe spaces for BIPOC (and specifically Black) employees to caucus before and/or after training sessions, as well as safe spaces for other employees to discuss their feelings.
  • Provide additional resources for your BIPOC employees: It is important to prepare your employees for this type of work to be done during their 9-to-5 hours. Yes, it will make room for healing and strategizing and growth, but it can also disorient, exhaust, and trigger people. Talk to people before, during, and after your experience to understand what they need – that could be therapy, it could be buffers between returning to their desk and the sessions, or it could be time off in lieu of doing emotional labor.

Somewhere to start but nowhere near the end

I wouldn’t normally do this, but I want to thank you for reading this.

I appreciate that you took a small step toward prioritizing your Black employees, coworkers, or yourself. Though you may have read this piece and now feel like you have a long way to go, a lot to do, or a million questions, I ask you to sit with that. Acknowledging your feelings is not enough, but it’s a place to start with in order to make decisions about the calls-to-action that resonate with you. 

Know that you could do all of the things on this list, and still get things wrong. And that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. That doesn’t mean you should show up today but not tomorrow. It means you have an opportunity to grow, change, and proactively care for the people in your life that deserve better.

Would you like to learn more about workplace mental health and grief services for BIPOC employees? Please join me over here.