Racism reeducation book #5 – Crystal Fleming’s How to Be Less Stupid About Race

How to Be Less Stupid About Race is one in a stack of books I’m reading as part of my overdue reeducation on racism. I’ve reviewed more than 500 business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations for 27 years.

What exactly should we do now?

What can you and I starting doing today to tackle racism at work and in our community?

book stupidIt’s a question Crystal Fleming, author of How to Be Less Stupid About Race, gets asked at every speaking engagement. Crystal is a writer, sociologist and associate professor of sociology and Africana studies at Stony Brook University.

“Being educated about inequality and oppression can feel as if the weight of the world has been placed on your shoulders and now you’ve got to DO! SOMETHING! ABOUT IT!,” says Crystal. “It’s a positive sign to want an action plan that will explain how to put your newfound knowledge into practice and make this world a better place.

“But this is what I’d tell my younger self: no one is going to be able to explain to you, in a soundbite, what you should do to challenge racism. They simply can’t. The answer is going to vary for each individual, depending on your personality and background, interests, talents and inclinations. So, it’s your job to figure out how you can best leverage your knowledge and skills to help humanity.”

Instead of a soundbite, Crystal has 10 recommendations for how we can be less stupid about race and do our part to dismantle systemic racism.

Relinquish magical thinking. “If you want to pursue the cause of social justice, give up the need for quick fixes and gird your loins for a long struggle. To sustain your work for the long haul, you’ll have to build up your reserves of resilience, self-care, community care and courage. You’ll have to nurture your capacity for hope, humour, love and connection, even, and especially, in the midst of oppression.”

Critically assess your racial socialization. “Most of us were not taught to acknowledge the impact of racial ideas, scripts and behavior on our upbringing and values, but that’s the kind of internal work that’s required for addressing racism.”

Start or join an antiracist study group and share what you learn about systemic racism. “Making a long-term commitment to challenging racism also requires a lifetime of learning.”

Empower young people to understand systemic racism. “Help ensure that children and adolescents in your sphere of influence understand that race is not just about ‘skin colour’ or ‘seeing race’. It’s a systemic problem that’s going to require collective mobilization to bring about enduring change – and youth have an important role to play in dismantling white supremacy.”

Recognize and reject false equivalencies. “One of the most dangerous and pervasive forms of racial ignorance is the insistence on drawing a false equivalency between being a member of the racial majority group and a member of a racial minority group.”

Disrupt racist practices – get comfortable calling shit out. “If you’re not making powerful white people uncomfortable, you’re doing antiracism wrong. Leverage your social influence, stand up against racist behavior and be willing to make your racist family members, friends and/or colleagues uncomfortable.”

Get organized – support the work of antiracist organizations, educators and activists. “The most intelligent way to address a systemic problem is to approach is systematically, which involves organizing and mobilizing collective action.”

Amplify the voices of Black women, Indigenous women and women of colour. “Our vulnerability to multiple forms of oppression render Black women more sensitized to and knowledgeable about the complexities of racism, sexism, classism, and so on.”

Shift resources to marginalized people. “Institutions, organizations, politicians and everyday citizens can all make it a regular, ongoing practice to look for ways of disrupting the status quote by investing material, cultural, social and political resources into vulnerable communities.”

Choose an area of impact that leverages your unique talents. “You don’t have to be a ‘single-issue’ antiracist, but I do recommend selecting a few areas to build your knowledge and maximize your impact.”

Crystal says we’re stupid about race because we think of racism as individual prejudice and not as a broader system and structure of power. “Whether you realize it or not, racism is systemic, pervasive and embedded within the core of all our major institutions. The consequences of systemic racism are vast – from the burgeoning racial wealth gap, political disenfranchisement, mass incarceration and racist immigration policies to micro-aggressions, racial profiling, racist media imagery and disparities in health, education, employment and housing.”

Along with reading Crystal’s book and adopting one or more of her recommendations, there’s one other thing you and I can do right now. When we ask if authors and experts can run antiracism workshops and guest talks at work and in our community this fall, pay them for time and expertise.

‘I could write entire novels about the so-called invitations I’ve received to give free talks about racism and slavery at well-funded universities that built their wealth on racism and slavery,” says Crystal. “Gee, as tempting as it would be for me to enrich your life with my unpaid labour while you rollick in your white privilege, I’m going to have to pass.”

How to prevent diversity training from becoming a support group for white people (review of White Fragility)

crying-1299426_1920I owe the facilitators an apology.

I was taking my first mandatory diversity workshop at work. I was more than 20 years into my career.

This was not my finest moment. I sat with my arms crossed, back up and mouth shut.

I was suffering from an acute case of sudden onset white fragility. I thought the facilitators were preaching to the converted. I’d never said anything racist to a co-worker. I didn’t judge people based on the colour of their skin. Of course everyone should feel safe, welcomed and respected at work. So why was I there?

Robin Diangelo’s seen and heard it all during her two decades as a racial and social justice trainer and consultant. At least I didn’t sigh, cry or storm out of the room.

white fragility“After years of working with my fellow whites, I have discovered (as, I am sure, have countless people of colour) a set of unspoken rules for how to give white people feedback on our inevitable and often unconscious racist assumptions and patterns,” says Diangelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.

“I have found that the only way to give feedback without triggering white fragility is not to give it at all.”

Should a facilitator break the cardinal rule – “do not give me feedback on my racism under any circumstances” – Diangelo says you must then follow 10 other tongue-in-cheek rules, including:

“There must be trust between us. You must trust that I am in no way racist before you can give me feedback on my racism.”

“Highlighting my racial privilege invalidates the form of oppression that I experience (e.g. classism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, transphobia). We will then need to turn our attention to how you oppressed me.”

Diversity and inclusion workshops have the potential to turn into support groups for comforting and coddling aggrieved white people. Talking about racism for two hours in a conference room somehow becomes more traumatizing than enduring a lifetime of racism.

“White fragility functions as a form of bullying,” says Diangelo. “I am going to make it so miserable for you to confront me – no matter how diplomatically you try to do so – that you will simply back off, give up and never raise the issue again.”

So what’s the solution? Start with how we define racism to help diffuse tension in the room. “It is not limited to a single act or person. Racism is deeply embedded in the fabric of our society. Racism differs from individual racial prejudice and racial discrimination in the historical accumulation and ongoing use of institutional power and authority to support the prejudice and to systematically enforce discriminatory behaviors with far-reaching efforts.”

We may not be Tiki torch-waving racists but many of us have benefited from systemic racism and its unlimited lifetime supply of white privilege. Reflecting on that advantage is an overdue conversation well worth having.

We also need to rethink feedback. Take it as a gift rather than an accusation. “Perhaps the most powerful lesson I have learned in terms of interrupting my own white fragility is that this feedback is a positive sign in a relationship,” says Diangelo. “Of course, the feedback seldom feels good – I occasionally feel embarrassed or defensive. But I also understand that there is no way for me to avoid enacting problematic patterns, so if a person of colour trusts me enough to take the risk and tell me, then I am doing well.”

Before offering diversity and inclusion training this fall, have everyone read White Fragility as their pre-workshop homework. And then, as a group, have the courage to call out colleagues who’d rather be comforted than have uncomfortable conversations about systemic racism and how to dismantle it at work.

This review first ran in the August 6 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Racism reeducation book #4 – Eternity Martis’ They Said This Would be Fun

racismThey Said This Would be Fun is one of eight books I’m reading as part of my overdue reeducation on racism. I’ve reviewed more than 500 business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations for 27 years.

Three racists walk into a bar.

They’ve used Halloween as an excuse to wear blackface. They’re dressed as cotton pickers.

They cut through the crowd at an off-campus bar to get in the face of second-year university student Eternity Martis.  They smirk and leer in silence.

book fun“Drunken bar patrons pushed past me and into the crowd,” writes Eternity in They Said This Would Be Fun. “So many bodies around me – witnesses – yet no one stopped to help. All I could hear was my own voice screaming at these smiling white kids, with their black faces, to speak. They looked back at me, composed, still smiling, daring me to lose my mind. Then, still smiling, they turned their black, painted faces and slowly disappeared into the crowd.”

Racist acts and comments would be unrelenting during Eternity’s four years studying at Western University and living in London, Ontario (my alma mater and hometown).

Strangers would ask Eternity if she was born and raised in the country (not continent) of Africa or on an island in the Caribbean. When drunk or angry at the world, strangers would yell at Eternity to go back to her own country (that would be Canada). Eternity would be asked if she was related to the only other Black person waiting for, or riding on, the bus. She’d be told that Canadian winters were cold and warned that there’d be snow.

Classmates would touch her hair and sometimes ask permission first. White boys she’d never met would tell her that they’d never talked to, danced with, kissed, dated or slept with a Black woman.

She’d be followed in stores and told the discount racks were at the back of the shop.

On campus, Eternity was desperate to connect with other Black students. Yet the first Black student she ran into refused to look up and kept on walking. “A few weeks later, I saw another Black person on campus. I made eye contact and it happened again; eyes and head down, no acknowledgement. And then again. And again. It was if they didn’t want to be seen at all.”

Instead of strength in numbers, there’s suspicion and unwanted attention when Black people get together says Eternity.

“You’ll count how many Black people you see on campus. And if you are lucky enough to find others, you and your group of friends will be stared at with fear and loathing for daring to even laugh simultaneously.

“We know that our bodies and our behavior are always being policed. We don’t get an automatic welcome to the party – we are constantly having to prove that we deserve an invitation. Even then, we know it can be revoked at the first slip up.”

White students can get together whenever and wherever. They’re not drunk, loud and obnoxious – they’re just having fun and finding themselves. It’s a right of passage. If they screw up, they get their wrists slapped along with a second or third chance to do better.

“When white people behave badly, it’s an individual trait. When people of colour misbehave, it’s a problem with the entire race. White people get the green light to be hedonistic, carefree, flawed. We know we’re not afforded that privilege.”

While her time at Western and living in London was anything but fun, Eternity discovered V-Day, enrolled in a Black Women’s History in Canada elective and found her voice as a writer. She went on to earn a master’s in journalism from Ryerson and is now an award-winning journalist and senior editor at Xtra.

Anyone working in postsecondary education should read Eternity’s memoir. You’ll get a better, and sobering, understanding of what Black and Indigenous students experience day-in and day-out both on-campus and in the community.

At a minimum, we’ll know what to do if we ever see three racists in blackface walk into a crowded bar to terrorize a 19-year-old.

Racism reeducation book #3: Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race

racismSo You Want to Talk About Race is one of eight books I’ll be reading and reviewing as part of my overdue reeducation on racism. I’ve reviewed more than 500 business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations for 27 years.

I did what Ijeoma Oluo says we shouldn’t do.

I reviewed a business book about diversity and inclusion for the Hamilton Spectator back in June.

I emailed a draft of the review to a pair of Black colleagues.

I said I was looking for feedback. But maybe a part of me was also seeking absolution.

As our organizations start to have hard and honest conversations about racism at work and what to do about it, Ijeoma cautions against leaning on our Black colleagues.

book raceIjeoma wrote the New York Times bestseller So You Want to Talk About Race and received the 2018 Feminist Humanist Award from the American Humanist Society.

“I’ve seen the look of trepidation on the faces of people of color when they are told that their organization or workplace will be reading this book together,” says Ijeoma.

“They immediately envision the burden that will likely be placed on them; they know they will be treated as the walking racial Google of the group to explain every term or nuance that escapes their white peers; or as the unpaid therapist to help their white peers process their emotions in realizing that perhaps they aren’t he anti-racist heroes they thought they were, all while ignoring the deep strain and trauma they are inflicting on the few people of color in their midst.”

You can spare your colleagues the strain and trauma by making Ijeoma’s book your pre-conversation homework assignment.

She answers 17 questions, from what is racism, intersectionality and microaggressions to cultural appropriation, the school-to-prison pipeline and what to do if you’ve been called a racist.

Ijeoma defines racism as “a prejudice against someone based on race, when those prejudices are reinforced by systems of power”. It’s the back half of the sentence that we need to wrestle with.

“The impotent hatred of the virulent racist was built and nurtured by a system that has much more insidiously woven a quieter, yet no less violent, version of those same oppressive beliefs into the fabric of our society. The truth is, you don’t even have to ‘be racist’ to be a part of the racist system.”

Ijeoma’s conversation guide will help you come to terms with that system and the role each of us can play in making overdue changes.

It’s good that our organizations are talking about racism and ways for creating workplaces where everyone feels welcome. But Ijeoma says we need to do more than just talk amongst ourselves.

“We cannot understand race and racial oppression if we cannot talk about it,” says Ijeoma. “Talk. Please talk and talk and talk some more.

“But also act. Act now, because people are dying now in this unjust system. Act and talk and learn and fuck up and learn some more and act again and do better. We have to do this all at once. We have to learn and fight at the same time. Because people have been waiting far too long for their chance to live as equals in this society.”

My summary of Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy is posted here.

My summary of Robin Diagnelo’s White Fragility is posted here.

Racism reeducation book #2 -Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy

racismMe and White Supremacy is one of eight books I’ll be reading and reviewing as part of my overdue reeducation on racism. I’ve reviewed more than 500 business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations for 27 years.

A colleague disparages a Black coworker behind closed doors. He accuses her of playing the race card and says she needs to tone down her anger, aggressiveness and negativity.

A long-time friend is a fan of racist memes on Twitter and believes there are some very fine people among tiki torch-wielding alt-right white nationalists.

Calling them out won’t be pleasant or easy. It won’t be comfortable.

And it’ll be tempting to fall back on the adage of “if you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.”

book white supremacyBut white silence is violence, says Layla Saad, author of Me and White Supremacy. Layla is a writer, speaker and podcast host on the topics of race, identity, leadership, personal transformation and social change.

“On the surface of it, white silence seems benign. But white silence is anything but neutral. It is a method of self-protection and therefore also the protection of the dynamics of white supremacy. It protects you, the person with white privilege, from having to deal with the hard of white supremacy. And it protects white supremacy from being challenged, thereby keeping it firmly in place.”

Layla says our voices are needed. “Not as a white savior, but as someone who recognizes that their privilege can be a weapon used against white supremacy. The Black and Indigenous people of colour around you need to know where you stand and whether they can be safe with you with their experiences.”

Based on her #MeAndWhiteSupremacy Instagram challenge, Layla calls her book a “one-of-a-kind personal antiracism tool”. Meant to be read over 28 days, each chapter ends with reflective journaling prompts that’ll help reveal how white supremacy shows up for us and works in our favour.

On the chapter about white silence, we’re asked to answer prompts such as provide examples of how we’ve stayed silent when it comes to race and racism, list the types of situations that elicit the most white silence from us and reflect on how we benefit from white silence?

Answering the prompts in all 28 chapters will be overwhelming, intimidating and unrewarding, warns Layla.

“But if you are a person who believes in love, justice, integrity, and equity for all people, then you know that this work is nonnegotiable.

“If you are willing to dare to look at white supremacy right in the eye and see yourself reflected back, you are going to become better equipped to dismantle it within yourself and within your communities.”

While we’re part of the problem, Layla says we’re also part of the solution. Everyone’s contribution will matter. If you’re wondering what you can do to help, calling out colleagues, friends and family for off-hand, intentional or unintended racist remarks is a good place to start.

“And as someone who holds white privilege, your contribution to this work is of the utmost importance. No matter who you are, you have the power to influence change in the world. The choice is yours. The moment is now. Help change the world. Become a good ancestor.”

My summary of Robin Diangelo‘s White Fragility is posted here.

Racism reeducation book #1: Robin Diangelo’s White Fragility


White Fragility is one of eight books I’ll be reading and reviewing as part of my overdue reeducation on racism. I’ve reviewed more than 500 business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and I’ve work in public relations for 27 years.

You would’ve been less than impressed.

Lucky for me, there’s no video clips or photos from the one and only time I took mandatory diversity and inclusion training at work.

I was not at my best. I sat at the back of the room with arms crossed, back up and mouth shut. I was suffering from an acute and pretty ridiculous case of white fragility.

I thought the training was insulting and a waste of time. I was one of the good guys. I’d always been nice to Black colleagues. I’d never said or done anything racist. I judged people by their character and not the colour of their skin.

But had I dropped the white fragility, I may have started to own up to my complicity and silence.  At university, I never asked why I didn’t have a single Black prof or TA for my entire undergrad degree in political science.

In my 27-year public relations career with five employers, I’ve never asked why just one of my PR colleagues was Black, why I’ve never reported to a Black supervisor or served a Black CEO.

During job interviews where I’ve sat on either side of the table, I’ve never asked why there wasn’t a single Black member on the hiring and selection committees. I’ve never suggested that maybe Black candidates weren’t applying for jobs because of a glaring lack of diversity.

During business and community events, I’ve never asked why there were so few, and sometimes no, Black people in the audience or on stage. And I’ve never once wondered how my schooling and career might’ve played out had I not been gifted with an unlimited lifetime supply of white male privilege.

white fragilityI’ll do better in my next anti-racism workshop having read Robin Diangelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race. Robin’s had to deal with people like me for more than 20 years as a racial and social justice consultant and trainer.

She’s seen it all and calls it like it is. “White fragility functions as a form of bullying,” says Robin. “I am going to make it so miserable for you to confront me – no matter how diplomatically you try to do so – that you will simply back off, give up and never raise the issue again.”

Instead of having honest conversations about systemic and unintentional racism, workshops become support groups for comforting outraged, aggrieved and deeply hurt white people. There’s crying, denying and the seeking of absolution. People emotionally withdraw, physically leave and argue that they too have suffered from reverse racism.

“The moment I name some racially problematic dynamic or action happening in the room, white fragility erupts. The point of the feedback is now lost, and hours must be spent repairing this perceived breach.”

Robin’s tongue-in-cheek 11 cardinal rules for running anti-racism workshops include:

“Do not give me feedback on my racism under any circumstances.

Proper tone is critical – feedback must be given calmly. If any emotion is displayed, the feedback is invalid and can be dismissed.

You must be as indirect as possible. Directness is insensitive and will invalidate the feedback and require repair.

You must acknowledge my intentions (always good) and agree that my good intentions cancel out the impact of my behavior.

In her workshops, Robin asks people of colour if they give white people feedback on their unaware yet inevitable racism and, if so, how that feedback is received.

“Eye-rolling, head-shaking and outright laughter follow, along with the consensus of rarely, if ever,” says Robin. “I then ask ‘what would it be like if you could simply give us feedback, have us graciously receive it, reflect and work to change the behavior?’ Recently a man of colour sighed and said ‘it would be revolutionary’. I ask my fellow whites to consider the profundity of that response. It would be revolutionary if we could receive, reflect, and work to change the behavior.”

Robin encourages us to go into anti-racism workshops with feelings of gratitude, motivation, excitement, humility, discomfort, compassion, guilt and interest and to spend our time reflecting, grappling, engaging, listening, processing, believing and seeking more understanding.

“To break with the conditioning of whiteness – the conditioning that makes us apathetic about racism and prevents us from developing the skills we need to interrupt it – white people need to find out for themselves what they can do. There is so much excellent advice out there today – written by both people of colour and white people. Search it out. Break with the apathy of whiteness and demonstrate you care enough to put in the effort.”

So before holding your next, or first, diversity workshop, make Robin’s White Fragility required reading.  And have the courage to call out colleagues if they start crying, denying and checking out physically or emotionally.

For a critique of White Fragility, read John McWhorter’s The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragilityin The Atlantic.

Losing your job in a global pandemic is a lifequake. Here’s how to recover (review of Life is in the Transitions)

transitionHere’s hoping you don’t personally know anyone who’s lost their life to COVID-19.

But you likely know more than a few people who’ve lost their livelihoods during the pandemic. Maybe you’re among the millions of Canadians who’ve been laid off, let go or had to shutter their business over the last five months.

“It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job,” President Harry Truman once said. “It’s a depression when you lose your own.”

It also qualifies as a life-disrupting, dream-shattering and confidence-puncturing lifequake. Bruce Feiler, author of Life is in the Transitions: Managing Change at Any Age,  coined the term after spending three years collecting 225 life stories from everyday people.

transitionFeiler sorted through life’s high, low and turning points to come up with a full deck of 52 disruptors. These breaches in our daily routine can be positive or negative, voluntary or dropped on us without warning.

The most disorienting and destabilizing disruptors are lifequakes. When a lifequake hits, our life story now comes with a turning point that leaves a clearly delineated before and after.  Our life was headed in one direction and is now going somewhere else entirely.

“The carnage they cause can be devastating, they’re higher on the Richter scale of consequence and their aftershocks can last for years,” says Feiler about lifequakes.

First, the bad news. On average, those aftershocks last five years.  We’ll work our way through a long goodbye, a messy middle and an eventual new beginning. We can expect three to five of these massive transitions during our lifetime.

But here’s the good news. While lifequakes last longer than we think, they don’t last any longer than we need. Also, reimagining and reconstructing our personal stories is vital to living a fulfilling life, says Feiler.

An existential crisis can deliver an existential solution.  If we’re ignoring the expiration date that’s long passed in a job, career or relationship, a lifequake can get us unstuck and help us rediscover the plot and point of our lives. It’s in the chaos of a head-spinning and heartrending transition that we can separate signal from noise.

Try hard not to resist, balk, deny, wallow and be resentful when hit with a lifequake. “The initial jolt can be voluntary or involuntary, but the transition must be voluntary. You have to make your own meaning. The key to benefiting from them is to not turn away. Don’t shield your eyes when the scary parts start; that’s when the heroes are made.”

Based on lessons learned from the people he interviewed, Feiler’s come up with a seven-step toolkit for navigating transitions. “I expected that how people handled crises in their personal lives or work lives or spiritual lives would be quite different from one another. What I found was far more similarities – and a far more unified toolkit – than I ever would have imagined.”

Here’s Feiler’s transition toolkit:

Accept what you’re going through.

Mark the transition by ritualizing the change.

Shed it by giving up old mindsets, routines, dreams and delusions.

Create a new life by trying new things.

Share it by seeking wisdom from others and getting the feedback you most need to hear at exactly the moment you need it most.

Launch it by unveiling your new self.

Tell it by composing a fresh story about your life.

Feiler warns that we’re all haunted by the ghost of linearity. We shouldn’t count on our careers moving seamlessly onwards and upwards. Instead, we should expect even more disruptions as our careers increasingly come to resemble portfolios rather than paths.

“Primed to expect that our lives will follow a predictable path, we’re thrown when they don’t. We have linear expectations but nonlinear realities. The linear life is dead. The nonlinear life involves more life transitions. Life transitions are a skill we can, and must, master.”

Feiler shows how to use planned and unexpected transitions to revisit, revise and restart our life stories.

This review first ran in the July 24th edition of The Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Master the mute button and other survival strategies for meeting virtually & working remotely (review)

scrabble-4958237_1920It took nearly 30 years but I finally got to work remotely from an island.

It wasn’t quite how I imagined it.

The island wasn’t Aruba or in the heart of cottage country.

Our kitchen island became my makeshift office when the pandemic hit and we were all sent home to work.

The novelty of making breakfast and lunch while watching dad zoom through meetings quickly wore thin with our kids.

So I ditched the island life after a few weeks for a slightly longer commute to the spare bedroom in our basement.

nonobvious guideHaving a dedicated workspace that you can close the door on at the end of the day is one of the survival strategies in Rohit Bhargava’s The Non-Obvious Guide to Virtual Meetings & Remote Work.

Bhargava says working remotely comes with a host of challenges, including constant distractions and temptations like the fridge, Netflix bingeing, bored and restless kids, family pets and Amazon deliveries. Remote work can also leave us feeling isolated and lonely, struggling with blurred work-life boundaries, dealing with technology breakdowns and wrestling with the fear of being out of sight and out of mind with the people who cut our paycheques “When you aren’t there in person, you’ll need to work doubly hard to make sure you aren’t neglected, dismissed or forgotten.”

If your days are spent zooming in and out of meetings, Bhargava recommends being on time, learning how to master the mute button and keeping windows and lights behind your camera rather than behind your back. Dressing appropriately is also a winning idea. “Working remotely is no excuse to look like you just rolled out of bed.”

If you’re making a virtual presentation, keep it short. No one has the attention span for a 45-minute PowerPoint. Share and repeat only your most powerful points.  Look into the camera rather than at the Brady Brunch squares of people on your screen. And double your energy. “When you feel like you’re overdoing it with your energy level, you probably have it just right.”

Know that no one likes a colleague who takes pride in staying technologically illiterate months into the pandemic. “If the rest of us can figure it out, you can too. Or at least you can try harder and stress about it like a normal human.”

Also drop the lame excuses for why you were running late or missed a meeting altogether. Life happens and we’re all muddling our way through the new normal. “Just be honest,” says Bhargava. “It humanizes you and may end up making you more likeable as a result.”

There’s added pressure on leaders to keep their remote teams engaged and productive.

It’s easier to build and sustain workplace culture when everyone’s under the same roof for eight or more hours a day.  Yet leaders can still build culture and foster trust with a team that’s working from home.

Start with empathy, says Bhargava. If a colleague’s running late, underperforming and blowing deadlines, ask if they’re okay. Know that employees with young kids at home and elderly at-risk parents have a lot on their plates. “Focus on people first.”

Stand up for each other.  “It’s too easy to assign blame or speak negatively about someone when you don’t have to do it face to face.”

And make time in your meetings for small talk, non-work conversations and celebrations. “Show interest in people first and then get down to business. Virtual meetings may be the only opportunities for engagement a remote team member has with colleagues.”

Bhargava’s free e-book is a field guide for working remotely in our disrupted world.  “The rapid changes in the world are dictating that we each become more adaptable and willing to reinvent how we work. It’s not an easy challenge to face.

“You can manage this disruption,” says Bhargava. “We all can. As long as we continue to be generous with each other.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Build your brand with a helping hand during the pandemic (review)

empathyThe COVID fog rolled in thick and fast at the grocery store and an act of kindness got me home.

I was at my car with a week’s worth of groceries but no keys. I rifled through every bag and made sure the keys weren’t locked in my car.

I went back inside the grocery store to the check-out line, swung by customer service and retraced my route up and down the aisles.

The store was closing in 40 minutes.

The manager took pity, stopped restocking shelves and joined the search. He offered to watch the cart and recheck the grocery bags while I scoured the store for a third time. The manager found the keys buried in a bunch of grapes. I couldn’t remember when or why I’d put the keys there.

Buyology-Coronavirus_3DI thanked the manager. No worries, he said. Lots of customers are distracted and losing things these days. He was possibly being more kind than truthful.

Either way, empathy is exactly what you should be showing your customers and employees, says Martin Lindstrom in Buyology for a Coronavirus World. We need kindness now more than ever and smart businesses are offering it.

“Right now there are a lot of people in need,” says Martin. “Old people struggle to shop without having to leave their home and expose themselves to the virus. Waiters, bartenders, and airline crews have lost their jobs, with no new jobs in sight. Kids’ schools have closed, though mom and dad are still expected at the office. Nurses are working day and night. The list goes on and on, adding up to hundreds of millions of people affected by the crisis. All are in need.”

While offering extra help to your existing customers will cost you money, it’ll be less than what you’ll spend trying to find new customers at a time when most of us are dialing back our overspending.

“In times of need, you can really make a difference — and your customers will notice. In difficult times, you can cement a lifelong relationship. You can build your brand.”

During the financial crisis of 2008, car buyers were offered the Hyundai Assurance. The company promised drivers they could return their new vehicles if they lost their jobs within a year. Sales went up by double digits while only five cars were returned.

Your acts of kindness don’t need to be budget-busting grand gestures. Hilton’s DoubleTree Hotels recently published the recipe for the cookies they give to guests as they check-in. The hotel chain gave out more than 30 million cookies each year at its 500-plus properties during our pre-pandemic days.

cookies“We know this is an anxious time for everyone,” said a DoubleTree senior executive. “A warm chocolate chip cookie can’t solve everything but it can bring a moment of comfort and happiness. We hope families enjoy the fun of baking together during their time at home and we look forward to welcoming our guests with a warm DoubleTree cookie when travel resumes.”

My kids were definitely comforted and happy and ate the entire batch of DoubleTree cookies in two days. 

Compare Hyundai and DoubleTree to companies that are ignoring or taking advantage of customers. Martin calls out an airline that hung up on him and another that’s charging $50 upfront for every call you make, regardless of why you’re calling.

“What strikes me is that most airlines, car rental companies, hotels, supermarkets, insurance companies – you name it – behave like they never plan to interact with customers again. It’s as if this is the end of the world. They may know something I don’t, but I hold another opinion.”

Martin also says now’s the time to rethink and reinvent your business.  The prospect of another shutdown, an economy that’s slow to restart and customers who’ve broken their addiction to overspending should give you the sense of added urgency required to bust out of your comfort zone.

“This crisis is written on every wall, door and panel. I don’t think a single soul will deny it so use it to your advantage. Give everyone in your organization, from the receptionist to top management, a simple but profound task: rethink your business model. Ask the profound questions. If we need to change everything from the ground up, what industry are we really in.”

Legacies will be defined during the pandemic. We’ll remember how you made us feel long after COVID-19’s defeated. So be kind, do good, rethink and reinvent.

“What’s happening right now is a lot more than a story for our grandchildren and the next generation to come. This is the moment when you define your legacy as a leader. You won’t be remembered for wins or losses, but for how you were there for your employees and customers.”

Martin is doing good by making his pocketbook available for free as a digital download.

This review ran in the June 27th edition of The Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

How to be an ally for your Black colleagues (review)

I used to think I was one of the good guys.

I’ve never said anything racist about a coworker. Never accused anyone of playing the race card or dismissed someone for being a token minority hire.

But I’ve stayed silent and never asked how or why.

How was it possible that I never had a Black professor or teaching assistant for any of the 32 courses that made up my undergraduate degree in political science? And why did our journalism school have just one part-time instructor who was Black?

And then looking back on my 27-year career in public relations with some of the region’s largest employers, how is it possible that:

  • I’ve yet to sit across from a hiring committee that’s had a Black member.
  • I’ve yet to report to a Black supervisor or serve under a Black CEO, president or executive director.
  • I’ve worked with only one Black PR colleague.
  • I’ve had less than a day’s worth of mandatory diversity and inclusion training and I once spent an entire workshop ridiculously stewing in White fragility.
  • I’ve yet to do a local media interview with a Black journalist.
  • I’ve been to events, summits, award galas, conferences and workshops where there have been no Black people in the audience, much less on the stage.
  • Of the 500 plus business books I’ve reviewed over the past 21 years, I could carry under one arm the books written by Black authors.

I believe diversity and inclusion make our workplaces better. I believe everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect and has the right to belong. I believe in following the platinum rule. I believe bigots, racists and white supremacists are idiots. And I believe I’ve worked with, and for, good people who’ve shared all of these same beliefs.

But here’s the uncomfortable truth. I’ve cared but just not enough when the racism has been systemic. I’ve never asked why there were no Black profs or TAs or why no one on the hiring committees, in our PR teams and out in the audience was Black.

Is someone said “our organization’s colour blind, we don’t see race and we only hire the most qualified candidate”, I wouldn’t push back. I wouldn’t point out the less-than-stellar White colleagues who prove the best candidates aren’t filling every position. And I didn’t suggest that maybe the best people for the job weren’t stepping forward as candidates because they saw a glaring lack of diversity and a superficial commitment to inclusion.

And here’s one other hard truth. I’ve never wondered how I would’ve fared at school or in my career had I not been handed a whole lot of unearned white male privilege right from the start.

Silence is no longer an option. We’re all seeing what’s fundamentally wrong and it’s time each of us start doing what’s right.

We can get started at work by becoming allies for our colleagues from underrepresented groups.

Karen Catlin's Better Allies - Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces.

“There are many opportunities in every workplace to listen, learn and take action as allies,” says Karen Catlin, author of Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces.

“Your first tip for being an ally is to be open to learning, improving and changing your opinion.”

Catlin says there are seven kinds of allies.

  • Sponsors vocally support the work of coworkers and help boost their standing and reputations.
  • Champions defer to colleagues in meetings, events and conferences to send a public and meaningful message.
  • Amplifiers make sure marginalized voices are heard and respected.
  • Advocates use their power and influence to bring peers from underrepresented groups into exclusive circles.
  • Scholars listen and learn as much as possible about the issues facing their colleagues, do their own research and seek out relevant information. Don’t dump this work on your Black colleagues – they’re tired of educating.
  • Upstanders are the opposite of bystanders. When they see racism and injustice, they make it their mission to eradicate it.
  • Confidants create safe spaces where colleagues can talk about their fears, frustrations and needs.

Catlin draws a distinction between allies and knights. If you opt for a quick, easy and simple one-off fix for a colleague, you’re being the knight in shining armour. Your colleagues don’t need a virtue-signalling White savior.

What they need are allies who’ll do what’s right rather than what’s easy. Ending systemic racism and building an inclusive workplace is hard work and demands a long-term commitment.

“Being an ally is a journey,” says Catlin. “This may seem frustrating at first because it’s tempting to want to earn an ally badge and consider oneself to be a lifetime member of the Genuinely Good Human Beings Club.

“Instead of feeling frustrated that you’ll never reach some mythical, fully fledged ally status, remember that we’re learning together. The ally journey is an enlightening and worthwhile one, even though it’s a perpetually ongoing one.”

Racism – whether it’s overt, subtle or silent – needs to end. Our colleagues and communities deserve better. We need to listen, learn and then act and advocate as true and trusted allies. Catlin shows us how to start the journey.

This review first ran in the June 13 edition of The Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books since 1999. Reviews are archived at jayrobb.me.