It’s Time to Talk about Race at Work: Six Key Ways to Start Having Conversations about Race and DE&I

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Let me start by saying right up front that this is not an article about racial injustice or social injustice.  I do not approach this topic from the standpoint of activism, nor HR.  I am a White woman, but I know that it’s time to talk about race at work.

When I was a child, my parents told me that I should never discuss race with anyone.  It wasn’t “polite”.  It was taboo, as was discussing politics, sex, religion and money.  It simply wasn’t done, at least in the all-White, Midwestern suburb that I grew up in.  So when I began to have conversations about race and diversity with other business executives ten years ago, I didn’t know how to start.  I had no skills in this area.  I had to learn how to have conversations about this important, but uncomfortable, topic.

It’s time to start talking about race – at work.   Why at work? Because as business goes, so goes society.  Business sets the bar for all of us, but especially C-Suite executives. As leaders, your job is to not only steer your organization, but to watch and leverage key business issues, whether they’re national, global, environmental, tech, or workplace trends.  Conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion are no different;  executives like you can lead the way.

Here are six key ways to start having conversations about race and DE&I at work:

  1. Start Small.  Acknowledge the Awkwardness & Difficulty
    When you’re sitting down with your team to discuss how to move forward on DE&I, start by naming the elephant in the room.  The elephant is there, taking up a lot of space and everyone can feel it.  When you acknowledge the awkwardness that you feel (and probably everyone else does, too), it eases the tension in the room.  People are often so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they will say nothing, and that won’t help you make progress on DE&I.  Naming the elephant in the room also validates others’ feelings of discomfort and provides a sense of relief (“Whew!  I’m not the only one who is uncomfortable here!”). It creates shared camaraderie in the awkwardness.

    Here’s an example of how you could start the conversation:
    “I’ve never talked about race at work before and I am unsure how to do it now.  I feel a bit inept and clunky and I don’t think I am going to be very eloquent.  I hope you’ll bear with me.  I can imagine   it feels awkward for you, too.”

    Those are honest words.  People trust someone who speaks that openly and honestly.

  2. Seek New Perspective – Respectfully
    A discussion in a meeting about racial inequality may be a great time to ask diverse colleagues for their perspective.  Or not.  Don’t put diverse team members on the spot by asking them to share their experiences. It is not your employees’ job to educate everyone about racism or inclusion. One friend of mine, who is Black, said that she felt like she was the “Dell-help desk of diversity” for her boss.  Do ask if anyone has any business or life experiences to share that would help your team understand where and how to do better. 
  3. Express Sincere Interest
    Many companies and organizations are so focused on DE&I that they are tying it to their executives’ compensation.  That’s fine – unless an executive is only going through the “diversity motions” to get their bonus at the end of the year. Without a sincere desire to do better, a conversation about race at work will likely not go well

    It will come across as disingenuous, gratuitous and opportunistic – because it is.  You can’t accomplish anything or make progress without sincerely being open to hearing and learning about others’ views, experiences and suggestions for improvement.

    Sincerity shows.  Make sure your intentions and those of your team leaders are genuinely focused on creating a better workplace for all.

  4. Talk less.  Listen More.
    When team members start opening up and sharing their experiences and insights, listen with your full attention.  Don’t judge others’ feelings.  And don’t interrupt to refute their experience.  As a White person, it’s often very hard to hear what people of color and other diverse individuals have experienced or gone through.  It’s common to try to downplay or refute those experiences by saying things like, “Well, that was a different era – that wouldn’t happen now.”  Or “All people aren’t like that – you just came across some bad people.”  Saying things like that diminishes their shared experiences.  Just listen – and consider the insights and stories you hear as a gift.

    Ask questions to better understand the other person’s viewpoints. Validate emotions and show compassion. And draw the other person out more, if possible: “Tell me more about that.  How did that make you feel?” Doing so allows the other party to speak without fear of judgment.  By talking less and listening more, you’ll create an environment in which people feel free to share their true feelings and experiences.

  5. Discuss, Don’t Debate
    The purpose of having a professional dialogue is to discuss, ideate, explore and collaborate, usually to solve a problem or create new opportunities.  If your team starts debating issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, refocus the conversation on your goal, which is to develop a plan going forward. Debates drive people into different camps or “sides” of an issue.  And once someone chooses a “side”, it’s very difficult to get them to consider other viewpoints.

    Here’s an example of how you could start the conversation:
    “Steve, I don’t want to debate this with you.  I want to discuss it with you.  The reason we’re talking about this is to figure out a course of action. Tell me your point of view. I’m listening and I want to understand.”  When you reframe the conversation as trying to develop a course of action, it moves it out of debate mode and into collaboration mode.

  6. Push the Pause Button if You Have To
    If a conversation has gotten out of control to the point where everyone is upset, don’t try to force a resolution – that’s the time to pause and step away from the subject for a period of time. It’s in the best interests of everyone, so that no one says something they’ll regret, which can be disastrous for someone’s career

    Say, “I don’t think we’re communicating effectively now, and this is too important to not have a constructive conversation.  Let’s take a break and pick this up again tomorrow.”   The most important part of this is the last sentence: it’s imperative that you let your team know that the conversation is not over.  You’re all coming back to it, whether it’s tomorrow, or Tuesday or even in a couple of days.  It lets everyone know that you are not abandoning the topic, merely taking a needed break.  State clearly that you’ll be picking this back at up at a specific day or time.  It must be specific – that conveys your commitment and dedication, even in the heat of the moment.

This is going to take some time. Most of us were never taught how to have conversations about race, diversity, equity and inclusion. We lack skills in this area.  But skills can be acquired – and honed. It becomes easier with practice – and consistency. If you take it one step at a time, with sincerity and a desire to learn, you and your team will make progress.  And never forget:  slow progress is still progress.

Written by Kelly McDonald.

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