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September 7th, 2020

Conversations About Race in The Workplace Are Neither Taboo, Nor Trend, But The Way Forward




Conversations around race have been primarily considered taboo in the workplace. Traditionally, they have been part of a company’s DEI program, with senior management avoiding the conversation altogether, either out of fear of saying the wrong thing or discomfort. But leaders cannot avoid the conversation any longer. There has been a focus on racial equality, unlike any the world has ever seen, with companies and communities united in their demand for change.

Global organizations and small companies alike have stepped up, issuing verbal or financial commitments to do better, both across their workforce and with their customers. But while organizations want to change, leaders are still struggling with how to talk about race. Part of the reason is that it can be an uncomfortable conversation, depending on where you sit. And the other—they do not know where to start.

“This summer, there was an awakening in many organizations, with more and more authentic displays of corporate interests,” says Dr. Atira Charles, an expert on race and gender in the workplace and one of BiasSync’s experts. “They may not know where they’re going, but they want to do something.” So, where do leaders start?

Color, Not Colorblind

A natural default to avoid conversations around race is to think of oneself as colorblind. However, in order to have meaningful conversations, leaders must first realize conversations around race are about color. Seeing color and understanding that it exists can foster real discussions that lead to better awareness and willingness to change. “By refusing to discuss race and deferring to a colorblind view of the world, can decrease awareness and willingness on an already difficult topic,” said Charles.

Three Common Emotions

Second, leaders must understand conversations around race, often sharing three common emotions—shame, blame, and guilt. “This is due in part because of different backgrounds and perspectives of each person,” says Dr. Bentley Gibson, an expert in implicit bias and reduction and one of BiasSync’s experts. “Anyone, no matter how they identify, feel each emotion, however, in different ways. A newcomer that is truly opening up to the discussion for the first time may face a flood of emotions around what they are now seeing, hearing, and learning, which could be different than how one may react that has dealt with race throughout their life.”

Organizations that support co-workers, colleagues, and teammates sharing personal stories to learn and understand, can sometimes be too much–for both those new to the discussion and those who have had a front-row seat. However, it is crucial to address the emotional aspect of race to move forward and build inclusive climates and cultures. “Even if it is uncomfortable, those conversations must be had. That is where the real work happens,” adds Gibson.

Look Inward

Thirdly, while considering conversations around race, it is also important for leaders to look inward and do a little bit of self-analysis. How were you raised? Where did you live? Who were your friends? Where did you go to school? There are basic things about us, that we each know, which allow ourselves to take a temperature check on where we may sit around race.

By being willing to understand where a person of color (POC) may be coming from, it can lead to greater empathy and, therefore, humility. “Where you are and where you have been is a good starting place as an individual to bring the subject of race the front of your brain and not the back,” said Gibson. “Experiences you may have had where there may be a negative perception may help you relate to a person of color and think about what it may be like to be Black in America.”

Marathon Not a Sprint

Biases are not developed in one day. They are fostered during our younger years during childhood. With this in mind, leaders must understand it takes time for people to sit with race and feel comfortable and open to discussing.

One training or one facilitated conversation alone will not solve the dilemma. There must be a long-term approach and investment in doing the work. This means seeking outside expertise and going beyond thinking about race as a compliance issue or Black History Month initiative. “Just as a person does not go to therapy for one day, conversations around race should–and deserve– the time,” said Charles.

Seek the Help of Experts

Often leaders are highly educated and have what is needed to get to those key roles. There can be fear or anxiety in addressing race and gender in the workplace because there is fear if they do not get it right, there is a liability and the fear of appearing tone-deaf. However, those in senior leadership need to give themselves and colleagues room to say, ‘I don’t know.”

Conversations around race are rarely, if ever, easy. A majority of leaders express having a problem talking about the topic with colleagues and teams. Even those who can speak to it from a first-person perspective find it difficult due to its highly personal nature. Leaders should strive to partner with experts equipped to guide both them and their teams through the process—and not lean on people of color within the organization to be their teacher. It is not about grabbing who is convenient or of a certain race.

Leaders should not assume because a colleague is a person of color; they are a diversity expert. While companies are focused on doing the right thing, they are not aware that they can be putting their employees of color at a disadvantage. Now more than ever, Black Americans specifically, are carrying extra workloads—tapped by colleagues and leaders in the workplace, to help teams solve problems around race in their organizations, without extra compensation or titles—and doing so, while still managing their own lives and caring for families during trying times.

“Persons of color are experts in their life and lived experience, but they should not be asked to speak for an entire population,” says Charles. “By forcing this kind of additional workload on Black employees, leadership is only enabling White employees an advantage to focus on the work and productivity in a way that doesn’t have an extra service role their Black colleagues are playing."

Be Open, Be Willing

When leaders back away from conversations for whatever reason, it can lead to missteps and consequences that could have been avoidable. In fact, by not talking about race, leaders inadvertently show a lack of empathy and openness, which can have detrimental effects, such as HR complaints or a rise in employee dissatisfaction.

Often leaders that are not well-equipped send the wrong signals and create issues. While consulting experts, leaders should speak with employees and let them know that while they are not an expert, they want to learn and create a safe place to have these important conversations. This can help build trust and disarm, which is critical.

A majority of organizations have woken up and want to do more around race in their organization. However, those who do not, run the risk of being an outlier—potentially losing business, partners, even employees. With BiasSync, leaders are not alone. You do not have to be a POC to have a conversation about race; you need the right framework. And that’s what BiasSync does. BiasSync makes it easy for leaders to bring in a team of experts with the proper knowledge to create a long-term approach for leaders to have meaningful conversations with their employees and create meaningful change.

Learn more about how to talk about race in the workplace by watching our video – visit:

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