How to Talk About Race: Tips for Having an Effective Employee Diversity Conversation

Today, most organisations are trying to weave in diversity and inclusion into their culture and are encouraging more open dialogue when it comes to having difficult conversations around these topics. However, it is always challenging to get employees involved in dismantling racist and biased systems who are not directly impacted by it.  Conversations relating to inequality, injustice, race often teemed with pain and discomfort can evoke many strong emotions. Some might dismiss it with unconscious narratives that are hard to break:

“This in not my job to fix it.”

“This is just the way it has always been.”

“There is nothing I can do about it.”

Since most adults spend a large part of their lives at work, great changes for society can begin in the workplace. The only way to end racial bias is to teach others to unlearn it, speak out whenever they notice any injustice, and be an unwavering ally.

This blog lays down key advice, ideas and considerations for individuals in an organisation to bear in mind when having these crucial conversations about race at their workplace.

  1. Things to consider before holding conversations about race

Few of the important elements of holding a safe conversation around race is to allow respectful expression, compassionate listening, and a shared learning.

The amount of time that is dedicated to preparing for the crucial conversation will be key to determining how effective the conversation will be.

When approaching conversations about race here are a few things to consider:

Reflect on the organisational culture

Ownership and openness are at the heart of having uncomfortable but productive conversations at work about race and racism. People and Culture teams must consider the company culture, values and whether it encourages candid conversations and receiving feedback.

Where open and candid conversations take place regularly, there is a high likelihood that the company is ready to hold conversations about race.

PRO TIPS:

  • Remind your employees about your company values, principles and approach towards honest and open communication.
  • Engage teams in concepts such as growth mindset – being more open to learning from others, seeking new knowledge and taking critical feedback with grace. Ideally, you would want to teach these skills through training courses and coaching that will accelerate the process, organisations can also conduct internal workshops to promote active learning and listening skills.

Connect to your organisation’s objectives and goals

When organisation’s objectives and aims are clearly aligned with the diversity and inclusion initiatives – the chance of adoption increases significantly. People and Culture Managers should consider and clearly communicate how conversations about race align with their organisational culture, purpose, values, mission and behaviours.

Set the intention upfront

It is crucial that the intended outcomes of conversations about race are clear for the L&D teams, as this will determine how the conversations are supposed to take place and who will be participating. This will also shape the messages that will be communicated to its staff and will allow the company to assess the effectiveness of its approach towards the conversations.

Equip Managers and Leaders with the right skills

Once interactions regarding race begin in the workplace, it is very likely that conversations might evoke strong emotions. You might be worried about using the wrong words or phrases and unintentionally offending the other person. You might be concerned about sounding ignorant or uninformed. Both parties might be feeling emotional. You might just not even know where to begin. Therefore, it is vital to give the leaders, managers and employees the right skillset to deal with this, such as:

  • Be clear about what the goal of the conversation really is.
  • Pause or reframe conversations if the context is inappropriate
  • Provide a safe space for the conversation to happen freely

  1. Things to consider when holding conversation about race

When holding the tough conversation about race in the workplace, right tools and skillset will increase the success of having open and candid dialogue. If handled poorly, conversations can lead to misunderstandings and can negatively impact relationships and atmosphere in the organisation. So, what do we do to make these scary conversations a place of open dialogue and learning?

Start with Heart

At the onset, be clear about what the goal of the conversation really is. Are you trying to learn something? Strengthen a relationship? Having an internal dialogue about what you REALLY want for yourself and for the other person can lay a foundation for the conversation that allows you to reset anytime you notice things getting off track. Think of it as your dialogue “true north.” Clarify your motive and be laser-focused on it throughout the conversation in order to make sure you are able to talk out your thoughts and concerns, instead of acting them out.

Contrast to Prevent Misunderstandings

One of the most powerful tools we have to create a safe space for dialogue is the ability to clarify our intentions with others. Begin the conversation with a contrasting statement that will clarify what you intend to accomplish as well as what you want to avoid. This contrasting statement will help you communicate your intentions upfront and is also a statement you can return to throughout the dialogue to really let your friends and colleagues know your intent. There is an old saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” In opening your conversation with your contrasting statement, address your intentions for the conversation AND your care and concern for the individuals participating in it.

  1. Following-up with compassion

New norms are established when people experience immediate and consistent social consequences for their behaviour. So be sure they do. If you see violations, confront them. But also confront those who were aware of them but said nothing. You need to not only communicate your desire for new behaviour—but also your expectation that others will join you in encouraging the agreed-upon values. And when repeated offenses occur, be sure to invoke the sanctions you committed to. But when you do, do so in a way that shows you get no satisfaction from inflicting punishment. If you seem vindictive or remorseless about it, you will once again alienate those you’re trying to influence.

Key Considerations for post-conversation communication:

  • Show gratitude for those who participated and recognised the emotional energy spent by everyone.
  • Gather key learnings from the conversations.
  • Committing to action plans as a result of the new learnings.
  • Indicate a timeline when employees will start to see changes.

The ability to excel in a diverse world is increasingly important. Today’s workforces, suppliers, and customers are already amazingly diverse along dimensions such as gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, physical ability, sexual orientation, language, education, economic class, etc. This diversity is bound to grow as work becomes increasingly global and interconnected. Organisations need to leverage diversity into a competitive advantage, or it will become a major stumbling block.

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