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Sep 11, 2020

Well-intentioned conversations about racism are happening at companies across the country, but if not handled correctly, they can leave Black employees more alienated and burdened than before.

While in the past, many leaders have avoided necessary conversations on race, calling them “divisive,” we in the business of equity and belonging have always explained that company culture is created, recreated, and upheld in all interpersonal interactions within an organization. It’s therefore pivotal that you encourage your leaders to be human.

It can be as simple as a leader saying: “I know that we haven’t talked about anything personal, but I want you to know that I care about you and support you as a person.” 

That said, it’s particularly important to name the community that is impacted––the racial injustice that’s happening is happening to Black people. To leave that out is to contribute to erasure. 

What’s more, don’t expect these workplace conversations on anti-Black racism to be easy. In many cases, this will be the first time your company broaches the topic of inequity or is asked to take a stance. Making space for feedback on racism and equity, especially when dialogue is happening for the first time, can be like taking the lid off a can of a soda you just shook. 

If You’re Not Uncomfortable, You May Be Taking the Easy Way Out

In one of my conversations with an HR professional, I told her: “Be prepared to leave the conversation feeling like you got hit by a truck.”

Recently, many workplaces felt this effect –– they released statements about the world outside their workplaces and received feedback on what it was like to be Black working within their walls. Many Black employees pointed out how statements on racism fell short and how “commitments” measured against a company’s past actions. The same will happen if you hold space or prompt feedback without making it clear you’re committed to taking action.

While discomfort can be a sign that you’re having necessary discussions, here are some things to avoid within those conversations:

  • Don’t expect Black employees to lead the conversation on race or contribute to solutions. Instead, lean on your organization’s DEI team or external consultants. There are a number of reasons employees of color in particular may not want to talk about race. They may be fearful of backlash or of how team members or leaders may perceive them afterward. If your team members don’t take you up on your offer to talk about these issues, honor that.
  • Avoid statements that suggest everyone is having the same experience (e.g., “we’re all in this together”). These remarks discount the unique experience Black people are having right now.
  • Don’t single out Black employees or put them on the spot to talk about their experiences in front of their peers without their express permission.
  • Don’t say “I know how you feel” or jump in to turn the conversation around to you. The reality is that you can’t know how they feel, and the conversation should be about them, not you.

Many organizations are engaging in performative allyship right now, making statements or nice gestures that feel good but don’t actually improve the lived experience of the Black people in their organizations. To improve your initiatives around belonging, you need to create real and non-performative space for feedback to better understand where you are in your work toward equity. If you have employees’ trust, they’ll tell you where to direct your efforts. 

The Right Way to Talk About Race at Work

As a people leader, you know that conversations will happen. Not all will be facilitated by experts, and that’s why it’s important to give direction to your teams. What I’ve heard in the last two months is that, in response to anti-Black racism, business leaders across the country are having very harmful dialogues –– ones that devolve into debates about what’s happening “politically,” where untested assumptions about how race plays a role in the workplace surface. 

In all of your efforts, think about how you are protecting the most vulnerable and honoring the burden that goes along with speaking about things that are immensely personal at work. Respond to feedback from Black employees by saying:

  • Thank you for trusting and sharing this with me.
  • I can’t imagine what you are going through, but know that I hear you, I value you as a person, and I want to help in any way that I can.
  • I will never fully understand, but I will do my best to stay informed, learn, and take action.

Don’t Ask for Feedback Unless You Intend to Act On It

Many organizations are saying the right thing right now. But actually doing the work to become an anti-racist organization where Black and POC employees have equitable access to opportunities and are represented at leadership levels in an organization is tremendously hard work. And sometimes the impact isn’t felt.

The main problem with current approaches to addressing equity at work is that typical diversity initiatives fail to incorporate the best available science. And even when they do, it is generally from a very narrow set of disciplines. Leaders may look solely at quantitative measures of diversity like hiring and overall representation stats, ignoring the qualitative measures like employee sentiment and engagement that impact retention.

What arises is “the cohesion gap.” This is when an organization’s policies and practices look good on paper but don’t match up with the lived experiences of employees (i.e., an organization creates an employee-resource group for Black employees, but those workers still feel they don’t have adequate avenues to leadership positions).

Closing the “cohesion gap” means holding better conversations with employees, acting on feedback, and delving more deeply into the science behind belonging. It can also mean rethinking all processes and systems around how an organization identifies, hires, and develops talent. 

So unless your business is committed to doing the work, do not have the conversation — because the point isn’t to leave feeling good about yourself or your inclusion efforts. It’s to honor the vulnerability of your Black employees and use their experiences as a call to action. Don’t ask how you can improve the work lives of your Black employees if you don’t mean to follow up.