Life is filled with things we try to avoid – traffic, the flu, negative people, the list goes on. The workplace is no different; we try to avoid things there as well. In days past we might have tried to avoid talking about race, but those days are long gone. Efforts such as The CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion represents the commitment of CEO’s of some largest US companies to increase equity for Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, LGBTQ, disabled, veterans, and women. Office supply giant, Staples, implemented an initiative, “Race Is NOT a Four-Letter Word” as discussed in the Fortune article, “It’s OK to Talk About Race at Work.” ATT CEO Stephan Randall gave a stirring defense of Black Lives Matter to the company’s Employee Resource Groups. These examples and numerous others demonstrate talking about race at work is no longer taboo.
But for all of the encouragement to talk about race at work, we do not have guidance on how to do it. Talking about race, at work or anywhere else, is not a Nike commercial; “Just Do It” does not apply here. We cannot “Just Do It” because we are dealing with hundreds of years of racial oppression at individual and systemic levels. Furthermore, we have all learned to be silent about race. This silence was required in order to maintain a system of unearned privilege given to some, while denying privilege to others. Notions of color-blindness and silencing tactics such as being accused of “playing the race card”, or the subtle demand that as a prerequisite to racial dialog those who no longer suffer under Jim Crow conditions must first cede moral ground to the dominant culture and admit that “things are better”, are some of the reasons why conversations about race remain difficult to navigate.
Companies begin the process of talking about race at work, only to quickly abandon it out of frustration or objections from those who felt it was uncomfortable or unproductive. But what companies are not doing is increasing their likelihood of success at the onset. They are jumping into the 12 foot end of the pool without knowing how to swim, or planting seeds without first preparing the soil. In both of these instances, whether the swimmer or the farmer, the results are almost guaranteed to be less than optimal than had proper advance preparation taken place. There are things that companies should do prior to talking about race.
One of the most important prerequisites is the proven ability to engage in conflict and debates in a productive way. A conflict resolution process and rules to discussion are essential. The process and the skills to handle conflict should be demonstrated and exhibited in other topics prior to initiating a conversation about race. If we think about it, this makes sense. If people have not shown they can solve disagreements about something much less fraught with conflict than race, a conversation about race is doomed to fail.
The second requirement before initiating workplace conversations on race is trust. Because this is an area where mistakes will be made (by individuals of all races), trust is essential to creating a climate where such risks can be taken. In addition to the reality of mistakes, these conversations require vulnerability by all involved. There is no substitute to having trust prior to talking about race. The stakes are high for anyone willing to talk about race at work. Concerns that one’s ability to earn a living is at stake as a result of this conversation cannot be ignored. Those concerns can only be mitigated by the presence of trust before embarking on the topic. The importance of trust is also what makes these conversations more productive in small teams than in large gatherings.
Related to trust, but different, is the need for there to be a strong relationship between individuals and between individuals and the organization. Employees must feel respected, valued, and treated fairly both by their peers and the organization at large prior to a conversation on race. Organizations that are serious about the success of their initiatives will assess these factors in advance and where there is a gap work to enhance these feelings prior to talking about race. Having a conversation about race in an environment where employees do not feel respected, valued or have existing concerns about fairness (related to race or not) is applying a spark to a powder keg. When the explosion occurs, after the introduction of race, it will be difficult to recall the issues that were problematic beforehand. The only thing left is debris and the soot of racial dialog.
Companies are to be congratulated for taking this step to talk about race in the workplace. But it is not enough to commit to doing something, we must commit to doing it right and that involves adequate preparation. It is true, “Just Do It” worked for Nike. But when talking about race at work we must “Just Do It…Right.”
CEO, Founder – Harriet Speaks
Jyarland Daniels, MBA, JD is CEO & Founder of Harriet Speaks℠, a racial equity and inclusion consultancy, focused on anti-black racism, that offers training, executive coaching, communications, and conflict resolution strategies for non-profits, educational institutions, and corporations. Learn more at harrietspeaks.com.