How to have more productive conversations about race in the workplace

Companies have a responsibility in the broader fight against racism.
Companies have a responsibility in the broader fight against racism.
Image: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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Last week, LinkedIn hosted a company-wide meeting on racial inequality.

It didn’t go as planned.

Some employees made anonymous comments during the video call questioning the value of diversity in hiring, and minimizing the problem of police violence against Black Americans. In the aftermath, LinkedIn CEO Ryan Rolansky called the commentary “appalling,” promising that the company wouldn’t enable anonymous comments in the future—and that the company will continue working to change its culture.

As LinkedIn’s example shows, even well-intended workplace conversations about combating racism have plenty of opportunity to go awry. They can inadvertently become a platform for leaders to handle things awkwardly, for employees to espouse prejudiced views, or to further entrench perceptions that there is a fundamental disconnect between a company’s stated values and its actions.

At the same time, companies absolutely need to reckon with the ways that their internal systems and cultures may be perpetuating economic injustice and racial bias, as demonstrated by well-publicized episodes at companies ranging from Microsoft to Adidas to Bon Appétit. Open, honest conversations with employees about inequality are an important part of organizational reform.

So what can companies do to ensure that conversations about race and racism at work are meaningful and productive? Here are a few recommendations from organizational experts about how to do dialogue right.

Set a clear goal for the conversation

Formal conversations about racial justice are a lot more likely to be productive if they have a clearly defined purpose. The goal might be, for example, to invite employees to share their personal experiences and anecdotes about how bias manifests at their organization, or to revisit hiring procedures in order to weed out practices that invite or perpetuate bias.

Whatever the goal, the discussion should explicitly center on racial-justice issues within the company, according to Ella Washington, a professor of practice at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and the founder of executive coaching and training organization Ellavate Solutions.

“What’s usually skirted away from are the specifics of how racial injustice plays out in the corporate space, and to be even more specific, what is happening within their own organizations,” says Washington. “It’s easy to look outward instead of inward and talk about racial injustice in a broad way and not about challenges the organization has had about hiring, promotion, and culture.”

Setting a goal before scheduling a formal discussion will also help leaders figure out the most suitable forum. “If the goal is for the leader to talk about his or her views on the topic, maybe a town hall is the best mechanism,” says Washington. “If the goal is to get alignment from the leadership team on where they stand and what should be the next step, that’s a smaller conversation.”

Acknowledge the company’s track record

A lot of organizations are far from where they need to be on diversity and inclusion. Leaders should be upfront about where they’ve fallen short, and take responsibility for those failures.

According to The Daily Beast, in a recent all-staff meeting at Condé Nast, CEO Roger Lynch urged employees to voice their concerns about diversity and inclusion, and suggested that “if people had used the internal channels and raised concerns about this earlier on, we would’ve been able to address them.” That didn’t sit well with staffers who noted they had repeatedly flagged issues with discrimination, pay disparities, and a lack of diversity—to higher-ups including Lynch himself at a previous town hall, as one former Glamour staffer recalls.

Indeed, it’s likely that at a lot of organizations struggling with racial bias, employees of color have been sounding alarms via the channels made available to them—and if they haven’t, then leaders ought to acknowledge their accountability for creating an environment where people thought silence was the best, or safest, option.

That’s why leaders should also commit, in clear and specific language, to approaching things differently going forward.

“You want to tell people that there’s going to be strong, united backing on new policies and procedures that address racial injustice and racism within the organization,” says Michael Kraus, a social psychologist and assistant professor at the Yale School of Management. “And that you want to learn from the people within your workforce what needs to be done. And depending on your track record, you probably want to acknowledge that it’s well past time to be doing something, but that at least you’re here now.”

Don’t ask Black employees to solve racism

It’s unfair to ask Black employees and other people of color, who are already coping with the effects of racism and inequality in their daily lives, to simultaneously figure out how to make their organization more diverse or what kinds of company mentorship programs would be most useful to implement.

“Having a strategic plan is once way you can avoid placing that undue burden on black employees,” says Washington.

Kraus recommends bringing in diversity and inclusion consultants, who are specifically trained to help companies address institutional problems, and are compensated for that work. “Your instinct might be to rely on your staff of color to make those changes, but are they supposed to do their current job plus do all that?” he asks. “In general, you want to rely on people whose job it is to do the heavy lifting.”

Do examine why current practices aren’t working

A lot of companies claim that diversity and inclusion are among their highest values, while still perpetuating wage gaps, all-white leadership teams, and high turnover rates for employees of color. Conversations about race and racism at organizations should explore the specific factors that have led to these disconnects with the company’s stated goals.

“Being transparent about why your leadership doesn’t look diverse, that’s the first step,” says Washington.

It may be that the company simply hasn’t put in sufficient effort. But it could also be that recruiters need to try different tactics, that salary offers aren’t competitive, or any number of other factors. In order to fix consistent problems, leaders need to have an open conversation about what’s going wrong in the first place.

Leave with a call to action

Crucially, Washington says, all meetings should include a call to action. That could be anything from committing to an anti-racist training program to asking managers to bring certain questions to their individual teams.

Encourage ongoing conversations about racial justice

A flurry of meetings about race and diversity in June, followed by radio silence from July on, isn’t going to solve problems with systemic inequalities at any organization. Instead, leaders should be looking to create an environment where managers and colleagues are engaged in ongoing dialogues with one another, both formally and informally, about the problems they encounter at work and ways that the company can change to help more people from a range of backgrounds get hired and thrive.

“If you have these series of conversations once a month for the next 12 months, it starts to feel like part of your culture,” Washington says.

Creating a culture of inclusivity also necessitates building individual relationships, says Washington. When colleagues talk to one another regularly—not just about race—they’re a lot more likely to be open and receptive in conversations about inequality.

Keep acknowledging the world beyond the company

Kraus says that leaders should internalize the lesson, made clear from the tragic police killings of Black people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, that Black employees may not have “a firewall between news events and work life.” Indeed, research on mega-threats—highly publicized acts of violence against people from marginalized groups—confirms that such events are likely to trigger heightened levels of fear, anxiety, grief, and anger in members of the targeted group, inevitably spilling over into their working lives.

And so another important way to encourage ongoing dialogues about race is for leaders to keep acknowledging world events as they impact people at the company. “It’s not a possibility for some people to leave what’s happening in the world at home,” Kraus says. “If some of your employees are dealing with it, your responsibility as a leader is to address it.”