Helping BIPOC Employees Return to Campus

Elevating Soft Skills to Cope in a Hard World

Last week’s post about supporting BIPOC employees who do not want to return to campus workplaces generated many inquiries. This topic resonated with many people across a wide range of institutions and from various departments. It is evident that some leaders are attempting to apply thoughtful approaches to this circumstance and are striving to outline the best course of action for their units.

Those who reached out and identified themselves as individual contributors conveyed that they are undergoing some important self-interrogation about how to express allyship in the future. I am grateful to those who reached out for advice and appreciate how you strive to advance solution-centered approaches. Thoughtful approaches are critical as millions of people return to their brick-and-mortar workplaces.

If I had to elevate what I consider to be the most important element needed to positively transform higher education workplaces, it is the development and application of soft skills for all staff members. For higher education managers, soft skills must be deemed essential.

When I was working in industry more than 20 years ago (I cannot believe I just typed this statement), the importance of soft skills was starting to be elevated as vital for managers. This emphasis on soft skills was a considerable shift for profit-driven corporations whose leadership and boards of directors were far more focused on shareholder value and high revenue generation. During this time, management expert Peter Drucker (1909–2005) continuously urged business professionals to model human resource excellence that could be replicated in society. Enthralled with Drucker’s proposed approach, I was particularly struck by the following statement from his 1973 book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices (preview only):

“If the managers of our major institutions, and especially of business, do not take responsibility for the common good, no one else can or will.”

I partially agree with Drucker. I believe it is the responsibility of other major institutions to support new ways of being and thinking, especially in the post-pandemic workplace. Yet, I also think higher education is best positioned to demonstrate managerial excellence on how a human-centered approach to the workforce, especially concerning the challenge of successfully transitioning BIPOC employees back onto campus.

What does this human-centered soft skills approach (preview only) look like with BIPOC employees in higher education?

McKinsey Consulting (from whom the concept of soft skills for a hard world is derived) presents soft skills development as a reskilling opportunity for an entire organization. It starts with the organization’s leadership partnering with human resources to identify soft skills gaps within the team and building a framework that combines traditional methods of workforce training with other measurable practices such as peer mentoring.

But before we march forward with soft skills organizational development, I implore managers and allies to exercise empathy toward BIPOC and other diverse employees. These employee groups have been clear that they are struggling in the COVID environment in different ways than those who self-identify as white. In striving to model empathy first, I believe it will be easier to plant seeds for true workplace transformation.

The pandemic can drive further workplace inequities if we allow it. There is a significant difference between a sustainable hybrid working schedule that supports work/life balance and promoting isolationism among diverse employee groups so as to not address discrimination in campus offices. We must seize this unique moment in global history to align our institutions’ DEIA values with our workplace principles.  It starts with caring for your team members’ feelings.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.

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