How Workplaces Can Invite Dialogue on Race

In order to heal divides and fix systemic issues in organizations, leaders should focus on starting conversations, emphasizing individuality, and measuring feedback.

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In times of great public debate and turmoil, people often become wary of weighing in, particularly in the workplace. They don’t want to offend anyone or fear getting in trouble for speaking up. This is especially true around sensitive issues of diversity, as fear often paralyzes people into silence.

But silence only makes the problem worse. To heal divides, we have to listen to and learn from one another. And it’s in workplaces that people are most likely to interact regularly with others whose backgrounds are different from theirs.

A study published by the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies noted that diverse workplaces “have a particularly strong potential for integration” because they “restrict individuals’ opportunities to act on tendencies toward homophily” — the tendency people have to seek out others like themselves. Here, our workplaces become a powerful tool to learn about and understand one another.

So rather than making talk of race, religion, and other differences forbidden at work, either through written or unwritten rules, we need to instead turn our workplaces into communities for open dialogue. The protests currently underway across the United States and across the globe, sparked by the killing of George Floyd and others in the Black community by police, put into sharp focus how badly this dialogue is needed in communities and in organizations.

The two of us have built careers in energy, one of the world’s biggest industries — and one that, like so many others, lacks diversity. (For example, only 5% of U.S. workers in mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction are Black.)

Through our experiences working to build diversity in the energy sector in terms of both race and gender, we’ve come to see how workplaces can create psychologically safe spaces for employees to discuss systemic issues in productive ways that lead to substantive change. These practices not only create understanding among staff but also help foster environments that support and attract a more diverse workforce.

Focus on Starting Conversations, Not Traditional ‘Training’

Much research has indicated that often “diversity training” doesn’t work as it’s intended. But through the programs we’ve run and the experiences we’ve had in companies, we’ve found that workshops designed specifically around getting employees to open up and have their own structured conversations (rather than, for example, just being lectured to) can be extremely productive.

One of us, Paula, was part of a workshop in which employees were asked to state the stereotypes they had heard about various groups of people. The experience was eye-opening. White participants were hesitant to speak first, so Black participants began to share some of the stereotypes that they know people have heard about Black people. Soon, people of all races were taking part in the discussion.

Then, when asked to name stereotypes about white people, the white participants didn’t have any answers. Most were unaware that there even are stereotypes about white people. When racial minorities began to share some of the stereotypes they had heard, the experience was striking. It helped some white participants realize just how ridiculous racial stereotypes are in general and to develop empathy for minorities who face false assumptions every day of their lives.

Emphasize Individuality

Sometimes, even well-meaning people expect individuals to speak for entire groups of people. They ask questions that begin with phrases such as, “Why do Black people…” or “Why do women…” — a mental jump that needs to be unlearned. Remember that the experiences of employees of different racial groups and backgrounds are not monolithic.

In encouraging employees to have their own conversations with people of different backgrounds, executives and senior managers should emphasize individuality. We should all be encouraged to ask one another about our thoughts and views, how we’re feeling, and how our own unique experiences influence our perspectives.

Measure — and Ask How to Do Better

For any organization, one of the strongest and most important sources of information and guidance is its own workforce. Across a company, employees have ideas about how to create healthy dialogues on diversity and what’s standing in the way.

Anonymous surveys tabulated by a third party serve as a terrific starting point. Ask employees how comfortable they feel addressing race and other issues of diversity. Ask whether they experience and/or witness acts of overt or implicit bias, and whether they feel safe speaking up. Collect both quantitative and qualitative data, giving workers a safe, anonymous space to offer ideas and be fully honest without any fear of repercussions or judgment.

Leaders at all levels, from the C-suite to senior managers and more, should also have open-door policies for their staff to come to them with concerns and ideas (including virtually, during the pandemic). The more employees feel comfortable sharing their thoughts directly, the stronger the sign that your workplace may feel psychologically safe.

Ultimately, the diversity that businesses claim to want won’t be achieved through recruiting measures alone. It will be created by making workplaces attractive to everyone — places in which we can all discuss our experiences, backgrounds, and ideas, and use them to contribute equally.


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Comment (1)
Brian Brittain
Thank you for this article; it was written and presented well. 
I am surprised that the group of white attendees were not aware of white stereotypes. It would help to provide a little more info on the group, such as how many attendees total, how many blacks, whites, etc. and possibly background info to provide context. 
As a white individual growing up in the L.A. area, I had (and still have) several people of color as friends, classmates, mentors, coaches, etc. Perhaps this made me well aware of white stereotypes. 
Were the white individuals in the training from diverse areas? Were they limited in their interactions with minority populations? All of this would help the reader understand why the white group may have been less informed on white stereotypes. 
The way this information in the article is presented may imply that most white individuals are unaware of white stereotypes, which may or may not be true. 
On the positive side, I often used white stereotypes as a source of humor with my friends of color, as a way to break down barriers of communication and open up dialogue about race. 
Again, thank you for the article.