Expanding Your Anti-Racist Managerial Toolkit: How ’Human Check-Ins’ Can Build a Better Workplace

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I have started every meeting I have facilitated for my direct staff the same way for the past seven years: with a human check-in. A human check-in gives each attendee an opportunity to share something that is on their mind.

In increments of just about a minute each, team members have celebrated a new car purchase or wedding anniversaries; recounted illnesses of pets and family members; and shared new hobbies, upcoming vacation plans, and the elation of new grandchildren. They have expressed frustration over microaggressions and disbelief over current world events. They have challenged office decisions that weighed heavily on their consciences.

The rest of the staff listens. If the news is extra happy, they cheer. If it is profoundly sad, they commiserate. As their manager, I will commonly follow-up with employees during our one-on-one meetings, briefly inquiring, “How is your mom during after her surgery?” or “Have you checked in with HR about that concern?” Otherwise, their check-ins are private.

The common thread among these snapshots is that each is a moment for everyone on our team to share something beyond updates on their expected productivity goals. Employees have a minute to be human. They have a minute to be heard.

Managers across the country find themselves in a stark moment right now. The public outcry against systemic racism and the corrosive failures of our criminal justice system is more palpable than ever, yet the cries against workplace injustices are still smoldering.

The racism of the white-collar workplace does not obliterate the black body, but it violates black minds and spirits daily. Routine silencing is one of the most dehumanizing and disempowering manifestations of racism, and managers often call into question the experiences of black professionals or utterly discount them. The grim reality is that many people of color in the workplace feel their outputs matter, but their thoughts and concerns do not.

This is where human check-ins can come in as one more tool in your anti-racist managerial toolkit. Human check-ins will not remediate structural racism, nor can they cure all of society’s problems. They can, however, address workplace bias. The data is clear that diverse teams are more lucrative, innovative, and productive, but only if you create the space to harness the divergent viewpoints and opinions a diverse team has to offer. Human check-ins can be part of catalyzing those conditions for success.

The Habit of Being Earnest

We know that routine meetings are the lynchpin of team operations. Typically, meetings reinforce racist and hierarchical status quos, but they can instead be used to promote equity. Human check-ins offer a mechanism for wading into the topics often relegated to the margins — who people are and what they care about. Given the typical demographics of company leadership teams, racism and concerns about workplace conditions may not otherwise be on their radars. As the Interaction Institute for Social Change notes,  “Every meeting is a chance to build a group’s power and transform power dynamics. It’s important to design and facilitate meetings to create opportunities for power to be shared and openly discussed.”

We know that moments of crisis are not the time to try to build the systems you need to ride those crises out. If you’ve never engaged your team in an open conversation about their thoughts and feelings, this intense period of uncertainty and fear about the pandemic and front-page upheaval around systemic racism is not the time to start.

The habit of being earnest with one another in official forums has to be solidified before disaster strikes. As the academic Dean Robb writes,  “In a Resilient Organization, uncomfortable feelings are not suppressed, denied or controlled, rather, they are accepted and managed openly [sic].” Human check-ins are not a quick fix. You should only decide to incorporate this tool when you’re willing to commit to the practice on an on-going basis.

Human check-ins are more than the simple question of how are things going. In fact, one doesn’t even need to use that prompt or any other prompt in particular. Human check-ins are the establishment of a norm. They are an open invitation for team members to briefly share what’s on their minds. They offer employees permission to be vulnerable, upset, and honest — which can seem taboo in most workplaces.

You should not expect immediate openness. In fact, if you adopt this tool, you can initially expect skepticism and maybe even pushback. It takes time for employees to embrace the human check-in, and you cannot force it.

The key to success is not only getting your staff to the point at which people welcome sharing, but also ensuring the other members of the team know how to actively listen and affirm their colleagues.

With consistency, human check-ins can build a culture of trust, transparency, and respect that withstands the stress of external pressures like the kind we face at this moment.

Psychological Safety in an Unsafe Society

We know that people of color, and especially women of color, are given less support in the workplace. Beyond the paucity of people from excluded backgrounds in positions of managerial leadership, people of color in the workplace often face an emotional tax  that can affect their productivity and their well-being.

Being a lone person of color, or even one of a few, on a team can be incredibly isolating. Human check-ins can help foster a sense of belonging that builds bridges of understanding, cultivating more trust, more communication, and more cohesion among team members.

Managers can positively or negatively affect their team members’ emotional well-being. We need to wield justly the tremendous influence and authority we have. When we allocate company time to people giving voice to what they’re feeling and thinking, we are validating our staff members as much more than cogs in a machine. We validate them as people, and we show them that we, as managers, care about them. We also account for the disproportionate number of people of color who might feel their ability to respond or offer input is suppressed in other work settings.

We know the highest-performing teams are able to reach such heights because they have psychological safety. Human check-ins promote the trust and human dignity that are cornerstones of this safety.

Author and academic Donna Hicks has spent years demonstrating the importance of dignity to social cohesion. In her book, Dignity , she argues that people become more connected and more capable of creating meaningful relationships when they treat one another with dignity. Human check-ins make space for teammates to know one another beyond the stereotypes and tropes they might associate with colleagues because of their social identities.

Are Human Check-Ins Really Impactful?

There are many substantive ways to support the labor of people of color and people from other historically excluded backgrounds. A human check-in is only one tool, but it is an impactful one.

To offer some anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of human check-ins, I want to share a message I recently received from a former graduate assistant:

“I want to thank you because [when] you would have meetings with me, you would always do a ‘human check-in.’ You cared more about the individual than the work at the moment, because the work they do can’t be great if they themselves don’t feel great. Honestly, that trait is undervalued in the corporate world, and really everywhere, so I love asking people how they are doing and being genuinely concerned whether they go into detail or not. I hope that, by asking, they know someone cares like I always knew you cared.”

Similarly, one of my current employees recently said:

“Human check-ins allow for a consistent form of team-building. It’s a structured time for us to come together and discuss our personal lives in a way that builds a sense of community and empathy toward one another. I found myself getting excited about certain things in my life knowing that I [would] get to share them with the team during human check-in, and also knowing whom to check in with throughout the rest of the week to make sure they feel supported. [Human check-ins] have been even more important now than ever, given we don’t get to connect as much as we would in the office [with the pandemic].”

What Are the Limitations of a Human Check-In?

All of the potential benefits of a human check-in make them worthy of integration into your workflow. Nonetheless, there are important limitations to recognize.

Using a human check-in is not an invitation to explicitly ask your staff how they’re feeling about racism, police brutality, or the treatment of people of color in the organization/institution where they are employed. This is tokenizing. It is also extremely invasive and inappropriate.

A human check-in will not negate an office culture or managerial approach that is otherwise oppressive and toxic. Using this approach will not work with teams that are already deeply polarized or lacking trust. More repair work will be needed before people will be receptive to this sort of exercise.

Human check-ins will not be useful if the supervisor’s behavior does not demonstrate they are genuinely concerned about the welfare of their staff members. This makes the whole exercise disingenuous.

Human check-ins will not work if what your staff shares is repeated outside of the team or used against them. People must have confidence that their privacy will be respected.

A human check-in should not promote oversharing nor derail the meeting agenda. They are not group therapy sessions. They only work if they occur regularly, at least two times a month at every meeting. They cannot be isolated incidents. They have to be part of a larger pattern of empowerment.

Human check-ins may not scale to larger teams consisting of more than 20 people, as the time needed to do the check-in would be impractical and the risks of sharing publicly would be amplified.

This approach only works if the human check-ins occur with the same teammates consistently. Doing so helps build the trust needed for people to share what they are really thinking about.

Ultimately, human check-ins are powerful because they center social justice and compassionate leadership. To quote content marketer Lionel Valdellon, “When you lead with compassion, you invest time into people and set them on a path for success. You support their growth and clear their path of obstacles … [.]”

Human check-ins matter because they affirm the humanity of your team. They disrupt the status quo and give routine airtime to those without institutional authority. Human check-ins allow you, as a manager, to gain real-time insight into the concerns of your team members.

You cannot clear obstacles that are not on your radar. You cannot undo institutional racism without creating a culture wherein naming the realities of oppression — large and small — is part of your regular agenda.

A certified mediator through the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, Shaya Gregory Poku is dean for equity, social justice, and community impact at Wheaton College.

By Shaya Gregory Poku