“We as black people enter the workplace knowing what we can and cannot say. We have to check our mannerisms at the door, speak a certain way, and not be true to ourselves. This is particularly obvious to those who are entry-level or just starting out in their careers.”
The above quote came to me through, of all things, a weekly newsletter on marketing in healthcare. The headline, “53% of black marketers don’t feel safe.”
When asked “Is your workplace safe for black people?” 93% of white people said yes. On its face, that number seems to speak for itself: white people are out of touch with the experiences of their Black colleagues. But having just completed a major research project for a client, dissecting what potential employees want in a workplace, this statistic leaves me with many more questions about what’s behind this disparity and what could be done to change it.
What does it mean to feel safe at work in the marketing world? More significantly, what are the factors that contribute to a sense of safety, and how does that differ between groups? For the leadership of white-majority agencies (marketing is the sixth whitest industry according to the same article) safety could easily be limited to a “safe space” to explore audacious ideas or disagree with the boss, which many like to claim as part of their creative culture. If we take this quoted response to be representative of Black respondents, which I do, we see a very different interpretation of safety in the workplace: The confidence to express one’s full individuality without fear of judgment, discrimination, or sidelining. Going further, a marketer who feels it’s unsafe to express their culture and identity in the workplace would surely feel unsafe in advocating for themself, especially when they are addressing instances of inequality and injustice.
The fact that this study was done and highlighted in a newsletter suggests that businesses of all kinds, including agencies, are accepting the ethical, moral and social imperative to provide a safe workplace for Black staff. Let’s not forget it’s a business imperative as well. Diversity is proven to increase productivity and revenue. Of course, that assumes employees feel safe to actively and fully participate in their work.
When given context, our original statistic does provide actionable insight. If Black people are to feel safe in the workplace their full self-expression must be valued within every level of an organization including leadership. “Ninety-two percent of people who said that their company had black decision-makers reported those environments to be safe for black people.” Representation, safety, authenticity, and productivity are a virtuous cycle that all marketing leaders must consider when assembling internal or agency teams.