Talking About Race in the Workplace
Talking About Race in the Workplace

Talking About Race in the Workplace

Company Culture, Diversity Equity & Inclusion   — 3 MIN


As companies in the United States rally to make changes to support our Black employees and become more inclusive environments for black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), ideas such as hiring more leaders of color, honoring the Juneteenth holiday, and allocating more resources to employee resource groups (ERGs) are a great start.

But true change also requires candid conversations at the team level. We all know that talking about race is really difficult in the United States. With the U.S.’s history of slavery and its profound and prolonged effects, it is an understatement to say that this subject is emotional. However, conversations about race are more vital than ever; the U.S. Department of Commerce projects that non-white ethnic groups will represent 85% of our country’s population growth between 2011 and 2050. As diversity increases, organizations must have the tools to be able to engage in discussions about race so that leaders can continue to build psychological safety and trust among their teams.

How can you best engage your people in these discussions? Read on for answers to some of the frequently asked questions regarding talks about race.

Who should start the conversation about race?

While employee resource groups work well to network, drive strategy, and build leadership skills, the current leaders at your organization should be the initiators of discussions about race. By guiding employees through difficult topics, leaders can help expand their thinking by providing additional frames of reference other than what they see in the media. In learning about different perspectives and engaging in conversations with their teams, leaders can help their people become thought leaders and change agents themselves.

If you’re a leader and feel nervous thinking about these anticipated discussions, you’re not alone. Many leaders are afraid to have these discussions because leaders in most organizations in the United States have not traditionally been people of color­. However, fear can no longer be an excuse for silence. Allison Manswell, author of Listen In: Crucial Conversations on Race in the Workplace, says that “studies show that ignoring race can exacerbate rather than alleviate issues in the workplace.”

So how can you empower yourself to have these talks with your employees? NPR’s Code Switch Editor, Juleyka Lantigue-Williams, suggests that leaders educate themselves on race issues and the history of race as much as possible. You will also want to ask people of color questions that are free of assumptions to gain a better understanding of their perspectives. Don’t be afraid to lean into the discomfort and be vulnerable – it will be uncomfortable, but your resilience, curiosity, and self-awareness can help to open the door to authentic dialogue.

What are some topics around race I should discuss first?

When talking about race, there are many paths you can take, including speaking about race history, current events, and race in your community. However, it can be helpful to start with the immediate questions about how race impacts your organization. If race is a topic that has been ignored in the past, be authentic – acknowledge that fact, and then continue the dialogue to address the direct questions about your organization’s policies, talent practices, benefits for diverse employees, and workplace culture. Blue Ocean Brain’s Anti-Racism Employee Discussion guide can give direction on talking about race at work and offers ice-breakers to get the conversation going, actionable takeaways, and key discussion prompts.

How do we best address questions related to race?

Questions welcome learning opportunities. Holding open forums, such as seminars or live webcasts, allows employees to ask questions about sensitive topics, even if anonymously. Seek advice and feedback regarding these sessions from your employee resource groups and other BIPOC at your organization. Always ask, “Whose perspectives and voices are missing from this discussion?” to be as inclusive as possible. While these forums may invite conflict, re-frame this tension as a positive step toward progress at the beginning and the end of these sessions. Between sessions, provide an “open door” policy for asking questions regarding DEI issues with an emphasis on inclusion.

Offering these sessions to your employees often and continuously will communicate to your people that these race issues, and the people affected by them, are not a temporary fad but are important and central to your organization.

Racial justice in the workplace is a journey

Remember, talking about race is just the beginning of your organization’s DEI journey. In order to truly change your organization’s mindset, taking action to implement diversity and inclusion in your employees’ demographics, work culture, and practices will help yield a holistic long-term transformation for your company.