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Advice for White Supervisors Checking In With BIPOC Employees

Highlights | What makes a good check-in? 

  • Supervisors have a responsibility to check in with all their employees, but it’s extra important for employees who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color. 
  •  Start simply and give them an option to say no to a check-in. 
  • Be open and honest. Most importantly, listen, listen, listen. 
  • Follow through on things you commit to and find ways to bring anti-racism into your work as a whole. 

Last summer, following the murder of George Floyd, a wave of interpersonal interactions rolled across UW Medicine. They looked like this: White people approached their Black acquaintances, friends, colleagues, students and staff to “check-in,” asking how they were doing and if there was any way they could support them through the difficult time.   

This wave promptly was followed by another wave, this time of advice from Black people on all the ways these check-ins failed, such as by failing to establish a vulnerable, trustworthy relationship; centering the white person’s feelings or needs; or by being an item to check off someone’s to-do list and having no follow-through.  

For some white people, all that advice and negative feedback may have resulted in defaulting to something all too familiar: Doing nothing and going back to the status quo.   

While this may have been the right thing to do in some relationships, it is not OK for supervisors with respect to those who work in their clinics, departments or labs. Supervisors have a responsibility to check in regularly with all their employees. These check-ins should be genuine, occur at regular intervals, result in responsible follow-through and be augmented in times of crisis or difficulty.  

Here are some tips for check-ins that work. 

Before you start the conversation

Recall past efforts to check in with this person, if there are any. What do you know about who this person is and how they like to engage? Is the person a very private person in general? What feedback have you received from them previously? Were commitments made previously that you forgot about? Make sure you are starting from a position of responsiveness to past conversations.   

Start simply 

Say something like: “I’d like to check in with you on how you’re doing and how things are going.” 

Acknowledge the elephant in the room. The person with whom you’re checking in may be aware of and have feelings about all of the misguided check-ins that have happened in the past.  

If this is likely the case, it may be helpful to acknowledge it, with humility: “I know people have been on this check-in binge, putting BIPOC colleagues in all sorts of unwanted and uncomfortable positions and conversations. I’m sensitive to that and don’t want to get this wrong with you. But I also recognize it is my responsibility as a supervisor, and as someone who genuinely cares for your well-being, so here I am.”  

Express openness and give the person options  

Say something like: “I’m open to you telling me, ‘thanks but no thanks.’ I’m open to whatever you’d like here. Are there ways I can support you? Is there anything you want to talk about? Are there things I need to know that can result in changes to support you better?” 

Note that these are all open-ended questions that allow the person to respond any way they want. This is different from “How are you feeling?” or “What has the news of the verdict been like for you?,” which can put pressure on the person to talk about stuff they’d prefer not to.  

If they don’t want to talk, don’t make them

Be willing to hear that the person does not want you to check in or talk about things.   

If the person says, “thanks but no thanks,” accept their response and move on with compassion and without defensiveness. You can say something like: “OK, thanks. Let me know if anything changes. My door is open.” 

It is OK to make the mistake of misreading someone and checking in with them when they didn’t want it, but it is not OK for you to turn this brief conversation into something prolonged because you are not listening well to their feedback. 

Listen carefully

Perhaps the person you are checking in with really does open up to you about how they are feeling.   

Here it is important for you to attune to their emotions and respond in ways that suggest you understand what they are feeling, and to convey that whatever they are feeling is safe with you. Sharing emotions is a vulnerable thing to do and you want the person to feel safe with you when they do so. This may sound hard but it does not have to be. 

A few genuine responses can make a big difference. Try things like: “I hear how you are feeling and your feelings make sense to me,” or “Yes, sadness, exhaustion, depletion. OK,” or “I know. I get how this keeps happening over and over, and it feels relentless.” 

Of course, the above responses only make sense in the context of specifics that may have been shared with you. These are just examples. There is no faking or scripting your way through this part of the conversation. You need to be an empathic, compassionate and emotionally open human being.  

Follow up on their suggestions

Be willing and able to follow up on any suggestions the person makes that would help that person.  

Sometimes a person will actually want to talk and will have suggestions for what they need. It is crucial that, if a supervisee does this, you recognize this as a key moment in their relationship with you. They’ve taken a risk to trust you and ask for something.   

Of course, you may not be able to give supervisees everything they ask for. But you should recognize that this is a point of vulnerability in the relationship. You should do everything you can to be as responsive as possible, and this may require effort you were not planning to make.   

The degree to which you are willing to make this effort really is the key that distinguishes a real check-in from a check-in that is really just a check-off on a to-do list. In other words, are you checking in so that you can tailor your ongoing efforts to best meet this other person’s needs, or just so you can say you care? 

Consider, for example, the possibility that what this person really wants from you is not a check-in but an observable commitment in your clinic, department or lab to anti-racist change across the other 364 days of the year. If your department is engaged in no other efforts, you have an uphill battle to demonstrate to the person that your check-in is to support them, not to meet some need of your own. 

Pay attention to your body language

If someone chooses to confide in you, your nonverbal reactions matter a lot.  

Do you feel “soft” in your facial expressions and are you letting yourself feel whatever there is to feel? Sometimes, white people feel that they should not show any of their own emotions in these difficult conversations, because that centers their own needs. But if you show no feelings at all, you’ll come off as cold and, well, unfeeling. That will not make the other person feel safe.  

What else do you do, besides check-ins? 

How deep or real the other person gets with you also likely depends on how much you’ve already demonstrated to that person that you get it when it comes to issues of race and racism. Have you stood up and raised issues in meetings? Challenged others when they’ve demonstrated bias? Do you dialogue frequently and fluently about issues of bias, microaggressions, police brutality, white supremacy, tokenism, appropriation, the minority tax, white fragility and so forth?   

If you haven’t spent a lot of time talking about these issues already, don’t expect anything deep in this conversation. You haven’t earned it.   

If you have, then it is more likely this person will want to open up to you. Even so, they may choose not to, and really only want to open up with other Black friends or colleagues. 

Moving forward 

In any good personal or work relationship, there are balancing acts: knowing when to give someone space and privacy, and when to take a risk and lean in with care and concern. We try to get this right, over and over again. In any good relationship, these efforts have to be genuine and come from the heart. They can’t be scripted or done because you’re trying to follow a rule that tells you what to do.  

After the murder of George Floyd, many check-ins failed because people were following rules instead of really paying attention to what the other person needed and what made sense for that particular relationship.   

After the wave of negative feedback about the nature of all these failures, white people adopted another rule: It is safest to do nothing.    

Perhaps in this latest round we’re more likely to get it right. Don’t engage in an over-bearing check-in binge, and don’t do nothing. Be thoughtful about the nature of your relationships, keep it simple, be open and honest, and listen, listen, listen.   

Guest Writer: Jonathan Kanter, PhD, director of the UW Center for the Science of Social Connection and a behavioral scientist for the UW Medicine Office of Healthcare Equity (OHCE). He notes that this article was written in response to experiences BIPOC staff and faculty have been reporting in affinity groups led by OHCE.

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