Becoming an Advocate for African American Talent in the Workplace

As corporations and business leaders update their DEI programs for the new year, here are five ways to advocate for African-American talent.

Training Magazine

American society is still reckoning with the detrimental impacts of systematic racism on African-American people in 2022. As corporations and business leaders update their DEI (Diversity Equity Inclusion) training, development, and hiring programs for the new year, we offer first-hand experience insights and five recommended ways to become an advocate for African-American talent in the workplace.

In the early 2000s, I was the only black person in marketing in a global pharmaceutical company with over 30,000 employees. In my last posting, I have been the only black general manager outside of Africa and the only black general manager globally. I can’t tell you what it feels like to walk the halls of these companies and attend global meetings and summits and see no one like me. It has made me question why. Why are so few of us able to enroll in these levels in business and industry? Why have I been able to? What makes me so unique? Have I given up some fundamental aspect of my blackness to become more palatable to these employers, or has my experience and success spoken for themselves?

I have concluded that it is a combination of my adaptation and track record that has made me successful where so many have failed. But the fact that I had to adapt to all in a so-called modern society is where the genuine fault lies. While attending Florida A&M University (FAMU), most of my esteemed classmates grew up as the only African-American person in primarily white environments because that was deemed the path to success. And over time, little by little, you begin to give up your cultural identity and essence to fit in with your corporate peers. Whereas, in many instances, my white counterparts have been permitted to become more of who they actually are – we have to become less. This is the essence of whitewashing – assimilating to succeed.

It has been a significant pleasure to mentor young African-American talents in various stages of their corporate matriculation over my international corporate career. I have also had the distinct opportunity to return to my university and speak to the student body about remaining competitive and thriving in the evolving workplace. Still, all my efforts have not dented the status quo. That’s why I am pleading for my like-minded white colleagues to heed this message and join me in the effort to attract, onboard, develop, and promote African-American talent.

Diversity and inclusion are more than a nice buzzword of the moment. It is truly good business. By 2032, people of color will become the majority of the US workforce. That doesn’t give us much time to transform our practices, but change we must. With that being said, here are five ways to become an advocate for African-American talent in the workplace.

Five Ways to Advocate for African American Talent

  1. Purposely attract African-American talent: Are you going to where African-American talent exists en mass? Are you attending the annual Black MBA conference or recruiting at the top HBCUs? Is it an organizational or departmental imperative to evaluate and include these talents in the recruiting process? To transform your teams and organizations, you have to seek the skill, not the other way around. And if the talent is limited in your space – create developmental programs to attract African-American students to pursue these career paths. Often, we are less exposed to the opportunities in these spaces like coding, etc., and therefore don’t see chances down these paths.
  2. Leverage their voice: There are ways to engage your African-American talents in crucial conversations that are complementary and don’t create awkward situations. Ask for their perspective on different issues or ask them to study a problem from a demographic angle to enhance the ultimate solution. This is especially needed in marketing and advertising functions, but it can apply in many situations.
  3. Find them African-American mentors and coaches: As African-American talent develops, it is important to have advocates, mentors, and coaches that represent them within and outside of the organization. Understand that there are aspects of being African-American in the workforce that you will ultimately never fully appreciate. Still, you can demonstrate empathy and compassion for your colleague by helping them find voices that can connect with their challenges more directly.
  4. Empower them: African-American talent requires empowerment even more than other nationalities because, in many cases, we have been taught to play it safe and not stand out to succeed. Please don’t assume your African-American colleague knows and understands how much free reign they have to overcome challenges and achieve goals. Don’t be surprised if they have a perfectionism complex borne from believing they must perform far better than their white colleagues to be seen and appreciated. Be vocal with them on this and remain supportive so they don’t feel abandoned either.
  5. Push them: It’s not so long ago that African-Americans could not participate in higher-order jobs like medicine and law. As a people, we have been conditioned to play it safe regarding employment and opportunities for advancement. If a white colleague has a particular fear of failure, amplify this by a magnitude of 1,000 to understand the vantage point of an African-American person in the same position. If you manage an African-American talent, you need to understand this perspective and work to push your colleague outside of their comfort zone continuously. Exposure is something we desperately need, whether via international assignments or matriculating through different departments in the organization.

This was not meant to be an exhaustive list, but it can be a starting point for anyone seeking to increase their allyship during these turbulent times. We need your support, understanding, and positive action now.

Omar L. Harris is a Former General Manager of GSK and Allergan with more than 20 years of experience as a global pharmaceutical executive. He is the Founder and managing partner at Intent Consulting, a firm dedicated to improving employee experience and organizational performance. He is the author of "Leader Board: The DNA of High-Performance Teams", "The Servant Leader's Manifesto", and “Be a J.E.D.I. Leader, Not a Boss”.