While many professionals try their best to keep their personal and work lives separate, an industry commitment to discussing and addressing difficult issues is far too important to ignore.
When it comes to the the topic of discrimination and race, both inside and outside of the workplace, it’s critical to enable a dialogue, as each person has their own experiences and feelings that ultimately shape how they view the world and react to certain situations.
While these conversations are difficult, if your organization hasn’t created an open dialogue culture, take a moment to recognize where you are, take responsibility for where you are, and take the proper steps to become the organization you want to be. Let’s discuss how to have the important but difficult conversations that allow employees to share their experiences and perspectives while also educating others to ensure the workplace is a safe space for all.
EDUCATE AND UNDERSTAND
One of the first steps to take is to determine how best to have these heavy conversations. Some find success in one-on-one conversations while others feel more comfortable in a group dialogue setting.
Regardless, it is vital that guidelines for these conversations are set so the conversation is informational, but also respectful. The purpose of these conversations is to communicate openly, without judgment or fear of retribution, and to provide a safe space in which to have these conversations. In order to create that safe space, it is imperative that the moderator or person leading the discussion begins with a set of “House Rules” or conversation guidelines. Since this is not intended to be a space for a debate, some guidelines may be not to interrupt the person speaking or zero tolerance for disrespectful behavior. Also, when setting up these conversations, it’s important to share with the audience the purpose of the meeting and the desired outcome.
It’s important to mention that each discussion should be centered around educating and teaching one another in a way that’s respectful and nonthreatening. Setting ground rules like giving everyone their chance to speak, not raising voices, and being mindful to assume positive intent from others will help you facilitate not only an honest discussion but a productive one. Approaching the dialogue with an open mind also is a good rule to set, as well as checking privilege at the door. Since everyone has their own perspective and is the expert of their own experiences, make sure you’re being respectful of others and not invalidating their lived and learned experiences.
LISTEN TO UNDERSTAND, NOT TO RESPOND
Listening is a critical skill for any professional, but especially important when discussing racism and inequality. How people listen is also critically important. For example, most of the time when colleagues are engaged in a discussion, many listen just enough to make their point or share their opinion versus listening to understand. This is where it can be helpful to have someone moderate the conversation, if in a group setting, to make sure that all points are heard and respected.
There also are important characteristics to keep in mind when selecting a moderator to facilitate these discussions. The moderator should be a great communicator who is able to exhibit empathy toward people and difficult situations. Someone who may be a member of a diversity and inclusion group or human resources team, especially if they have experience or training in discussing these types of sensitive and often very emotional topics, would be a great candidate to serve as moderator.
STATE THE FACTS
When it comes to some commonly used terms like “white supremacy,” “affirmative action,” “white privilege,” and “systemic racism,” there may be a general understanding or assumption of what the terms mean among the audience. However, those on the receiving end of the conversation may be all over the board in terms of what those words really mean. Take some time at the beginning of the discussion to define some of the key terms, likely those that will be used heavily throughout the conversation, to level the playing field and ensure that everyone understands the true meaning and history of each term. You may even consider providing a terms sheet with definitions. This would provide a clear definition of each term, serve as a resource document, and ultimately help educate participants.
Additionally, defining terms contributes to a fact-based conversation. When it comes to the difficult conversations, facts and stats go a long way. When people are backed by facts, they tend to feel more comfortable in speaking up instead of when they’re purely guided by emotion. Statistics and facts from a reputable source also can contribute to the conversation in a positive manner as it creates less space for combative or confrontational responses. Simply put, facts are hard to argue.
THIS CONVERSATION ISN’T EASY, SO GIVE EVERYONE A CHANCE TO TALK
Discussing racism, especially with colleagues at your place of work, is likely to be one of the most—if not the most—uncomfortable conversations to have. Whether it revisits previous painful experiences or brings forth the harsh reality of some individuals’ lives on a day-to-day basis, it may not be a topic that certain individuals or groups of people want to discuss. For that reason, some may be hesitant to speak and share their experiences or counter to that, some may feel as though they can’t relate or aren’t educated enough to discuss such matters.
Even though it may be difficult, it’s always a great idea to encourage others to open up because, at the end of the day, it’s a form of education and gives insight into each other’s lives. However, individuals should not be forced to talk or contribute to the conversation if they don’t feel comfortable.
Instead, simply make sure everyone is given the opportunity to share their thoughts, experiences, and suggestions on how to take positive steps forward without pressure. This approach may encourage the more timid participants to open up, and it may also spark additional conversation points.
The objectives here are about communicating openly, educating each other, and valuing each person’s perspective.
CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION
While the conversation about race and racism is incredibly important, it’s even more important to ensure the conversation continues, followed by action. The issue of racism is not going to magically disappear overnight, and there certainly won’t be any change if the conversations are so easily forgotten.
This is where a Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) council comes into play. If your organization has one, then you are already one step ahead. However, if your company does not, now is the perfect time to assemble one. D&I teams or councils assist in ensuring that your organization is hiring, celebrating, and incorporating people from all races into the organization. Additionally, D&I teams can serve as facilitators to continue the conversation.
Creating content that promotes a regular rhythm in the conversation like panels, webinars, documentaries, trainings, and guest speakers allow organizations to expand on the topic and continue educating their staff. Companies are also incorporating different methods to help educate their staff, including book clubs, documentary viewings, and other activities that attract additional interest.
When compiling a D&I team, it’s critical to incorporate your company’s senior leaders to ensure that the mission is represented with top-down support. Many current jobseekers are looking into their prospective company’s core values to see if they put an emphasis on diversity, inclusion, and equity, as those values have become increasingly more important to them.
It is very possible for your organization to have a positive external diversity brand while also having a negative internal sense of equity and inclusion for employees of color. Therefore, it’s imperative to hold all employees, leaders included, accountable for promoting and exhibiting the company values so there is no confusion around where the company stands with its belief in the importance of a strong diverse and inclusive culture.
Awarding individuals also is a way to promote inclusion in D&I initiatives, such as a Culture or D&I Champion of the Year award that shows its importance within the company. As we all become more engaged with making the workplace better, acknowledgement of small wins along the way are impactful to those doing this work daily.
EDUCATION, COMMUNICATION, AND EMPATHY
As the great Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Having these conversations is challenging, but necessary to ensure that others are educated and can serve as allies for their friends in the fight against injustice and discrimination. Through education, communication, and empathy, everyone can do their part to combat racism both inside and outside of the workplace. This isn’t a race to the finish line, but an adoption of lifestyle so the fight can continue for the advancement of all people.