How Leaders Can Discuss Race in the Workplace

These six techniques can help you create a respectful conversation.
How Leaders Can Discuss Race in the Workplace
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It was generally accepted that taboo topics like politics, religion and race were never to be discussed in the workplace — and for good reason. They are controversial issues that could create tensions and a toxic workplace.  At the same time, it’s come to a point where businesses need to talk about race. Discussions about race are not about jumping onto a trend or capitalizing on a moment. It’s just the right thing to do for your team and community.

Can you effectively talk about race at work? Well, everyone is talking about race right now whether we want to talk about it or not.

The conversation may die down as the leadership, or "bosses" walk by — so you may as well dive in and do what you can to make it clear. You won't tolerate disrespect to anyone in your company for any reason.

It's like Derek Andersen at Startup Grind said on Twitter, "We can get humans into outer space, but we can't treat each other with dignity and equality? 'Love you neighbor as yourself' doesn't have skin color." Derek also got out in front of his people immediately and said, "We strongly oppose racial injustice."

The point? As leaders, we have to say something. If you say nothing, whoever you are talking with thinks you agree with them.

Speak up. Here are six techniques to keep in mind.

1. Respect, reflect and resign.

If you and your business feel ready to engage in conversation regarding race, Dwight Smith writes on Net Impact that it will be more meaningful if you first take the following steps:

  • Approach the conversation with respect. If you can come from a respectful, open place and be willing to listen, you might be able to diffuse situations before they even develop. 
  • Put aside your preconceptions. According to Smith, “This doesn’t mean personal experiences aren’t valid — it simply acknowledges that personal experience can’t possibly give the complete view of such complex issues.” 
  • Examine your motivation. Bayard Love of The International Civil Rights Center and Museum asks, “Why are you engaging in this conversation about race? If it’s just curiosity, a pet project, a desire to ‘fit in’ or not to look silly, or to feel less guilty, you might want to reconsider." However, Love encourages those leaders who are earnest about creating real change and better understanding racism. 
  • Embrace the discomfort of not knowing the answer. The best leaders acknowledge that they don’t know everything. Acknowledge this and make a commitment to learn and stay informed.

Related: Here Are 4 Ways to Develop a Culture of Respect and Trust

2. Educate yourself and build relationships.

Expanding from the last point — embracing the discomfort of not knowing — you should make time in your schedule to educate yourself. An excellent resource would be The National Museum of African American History and Culture.

In June 2020 the NMAAHC released the web portal Talking About Race. It provides free educational resources and tools from scholars, activists, historians, and more to help teach everyone how to have conversations regarding race and racism.

You could also prioritize time with each individual on your team — it’s a simple way to foster a more collaborative and positive environment that helps build trust. This can then help make these types of uncomfortable talks a little easier.

Moreover, when you get to know your team members better, you’re able to check in on them, and eventually, you’ll be able to at least somewhat develop more empathy.

3. Set a clear goal for the conversation.

“Formal conversations about racial justice are a lot more likely to be productive if they have a clearly defined purpose,” writes Sarah Todd for Quartz. “The goal might be, for example, to invite employees to share their personal experiences and anecdotes about how bias manifests at their organization, or to revisit hiring procedures in order to weed out practices that invite or perpetuate bias.”

Whatever goal you decide on, it should focus on racial-justice issues within your company. It's easy to look outward, lamenting racial injustice broadly without addressing the issues within your own company, which might include hiring practices or company culture.

4. Create a safe environment.

“Many people may want to discuss what’s going on, so create an environment where all employees can have a safe and comfortable conversation about race,” states Lily Zheng, a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant. “That might mean having an open discussion in a large group, or having individual ones with each team member.”

As a leader or manager, Zheng says it’s not just your job to lead these conversations, but to participate in them and be vulnerable. That way you can share things you've been struggling with and prove these topics matter to you, too.

That said, if anyone does not want to speak or share their experiences, please don’t force them.

Related: Steps to Ensure Employees' Safety at Workplace

5. Adapt the RACE framework.

“Many managers feel ill-equipped to offer sage advice on ‘what to do’ when it comes to diversity and inclusion (D and I) in their organizations,” writes Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary. “As a result, D and I initiatives often never make it past the C-suite.” To address this, Creary has developed the “RACE” framework.

While developed for educators to lead conversations about race in the academic setting, you can also implement this in the workplace as well.

  • R – Reduce anxiety by talking about race anyway.
  • A – Accept that anything related to race is either going to be visible or invisible. 
  • C – Call on internal and external allies for help. For example, you could turn to speakers, workshops, consultants, and training programs like AORTA (Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance), Both/And, or The Racial Equity Institute.
  • E – Expect that you will need to provide some “answers,” practical tools, skill-based frameworks, etc. Provide easily accessible resources or frameworks like LEAP to teach others about allyship behavior.

6. Actively listen, but also ask questions.

Like the Dalai Lama said, “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” 

The most important thing you can do is actively listen to your team members. Don’t interrupt them or defend yourself. Instead, let them discuss current events, how they feeling during this moment, or the stance that your business is taking. And, if they’re willing, encourage them to share their own experiences and how you can help.

Following these conversations, ask questions with genuine curiosity.

“People enjoy having conversations about their heritage and their cultures,” explains Kezia Charles, FSA, Director at Willis Towers Watson. “Employees who feel more connected at work also feel a higher level of dignity, which is an important driver in employee wellbeing and productivity and the company’s overall business performance.”

“According to Willis Towers Watson’s 2019 Global Benefits Attitude Study, African American employees are less likely than their white peers to feel dignity at work,” adds Charles. “They are less likely to feel that they can be authentic at work, that they are connected to others and that they can handle workplace stress.”

Related: How Should You Be Talking With Employees About Racism?

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