Not long after the social-justice uprising following the death of George Floyd, I was on a video call with a group of leaders inspired to dismantle racism in their organization. They were sincere and earnest and demonstrated genuine caring about their employees.
“We appreciate your articles, as well as your expertise in diversity and inclusion,” said the CEO. “We’d like to create real, sustainable change.” My ears perked up, and I felt my excitement ignite. She continued: “We’d like you to facilitate a series of conversations about race with our employees.”
My heart sank, and my excitement fizzled. Déjà vu washed over me like a polluted wave. Inside my mind, a familiar voice cried out. “Nooo!” it lamented. “Not another ‘conversation’ about race!”
I get where these leaders are coming from. They’re not alone. When a spotlight shines (again) on the ways our country and organizations fall short of our stated values, good people feel compelled to act. That’s a good thing!
However, too often when it comes to racism and inequity, people feel compelled to talk. And (again) nothing gets done, nothing changes, and we resume the status quo until tensions and injustice explode. Again.
The Problem With “Conversations”
The urge to “have a conversation” comes from good intentions. However, there are five reasons this urge usually has negative impacts, especially at the beginning of an organization’s DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) journey:
1. It spotlights all the ways you haven’t been listening. When an organization asks for “a conversation” or embarks on “listening sessions,” this raises two questions: (a) Why weren’t you listening before?, and (b) Why weren’t people talking before (or why did they stop)? Both point to deficits in your culture and leadership that are toxic to DEI efforts and must be addressed.
2. It’s a form of inaction and analysis paralysis. Most organizations already possess abundant data about how their people feel and think. This data is found in employee engagement surveys, exit interviews, performance evaluation comments, HR complaints, and external websites like Glassdoor. They are found in myriad daily conversations in cafeterias, breakrooms, hallways, social events, meetings, and (in COVID times) texts, emails, and chat threads.
A formal “conversation” usually just repeats long-echoing voices and wastes time. It may even repeat the same themes identified by your last DEI consultant or organizational assessment.
3. It requires those most harmed by inequities to do the most work. This is also known as “emotional labor.” Race “conversations” and “listening sessions” are almost never held in the C-suite or among White people. Asking women, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color), Gen Zs, junior staff, immigrants, and people with disabilities to be vulnerable, share their emotions, and tell you what to do is well-intended, but it adds to the inequitable psychological burden they’re already carrying.
4. It asks people lacking essential expertise to fix the problem. We are all experts in our experience and what it’s like to walk around the world in our particular bodies. This expertise is vital to creating a world that works better for more of us. However, it’s incomplete without additional expertise in leadership development, organizational development, DEI best practices, adult learning, process improvement, and change management.
Such expertise lies in the corresponding departments inside your organization, or in highly qualified consultants outside. Invest in experts as you would for any other business-critical, strategic initiative instead of asking overworked employees to learn and do this work for free.
5.It will make things worse if not expertly facilitated with crystal clear goals. When I ask potential clients who want “a conversation” what their goals are for the conversation, they don’t know. This is dangerous.
Open-ended conversations about race in the workplace raise unrealistic expectations about what leadership is going to do –—or is able to do — in response. Those most harmed by inequities are often re-traumatized by sharing their experiences in a forum with no guardrails or direction.
Also, while workplaces certainly play a role in creating a more equitable society, most aren’t the place for people to do extensive personal healing work. Asking employees broad questions about how they’re feeling about racism or what it’s like to be BIPOC in your organization may open a Pandora’s box of troubles few leaders are equipped to handle effectively.
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When “A Conversation” May Be Useful
Having “a conversation” shouldn’t be the knee-jerk reaction to addressing race and racism in the workplace. However, it may be very effective if:
1. You haven’t been listening. If your organization doesn’t have hardwired processes to regularly listen to employees, doesn’t cut those data by multiple demographics, and/or doesn’t require top leadership to systematically review and act on findings, “a conversation” can be a good start for data gathering. But don’t stop there!
2. You want to build on your existing DEI foundation. If there is adequate trust in your organization, clear DEI goals, and some movement towards equity, “a conversation” can be an effective temperature check, or a ripe opportunity to deepen efforts and create momentum.
3. You have crystal-clear goals and an expert facilitator. “A conversation” may not be as structured as a focus group, but it needs the clear goals of one. Objectives may range from problem-solving to community building, or even productive venting. Central guiding questions might sound like, “How have recent events affected your ability to do your best work?”, or “What’s the No. 1 thing you wish leadership knew about your experience at this company?”
Put master facilitators in charge of leading the conversations, which should begin with clear agreements (about confidentiality, communication behaviors, participation, etc.), and clear framing about the purpose of the conversation, how the information will be used, and what participants can expect to happen as a result. Be transparent, candid, and uncompromising with integrity.
4. You, and all of your top leadership, are committed to taking meaningful action. Meaningful action isn’t more talking. It isn’t rolling out training. It’s investing in having your organization evaluated to identify your strengths and weaknesses in DEI from a systems, processes, policies, and culture perspective. It’s improving your data gathering, accountability, engagement, talent development, promotion processes, and leadership behaviors.
Stop Putting Glitter on Sh*t
Having “a conversation” about race or racism at the wrong time, in the wrong way, or for the wrong reasons doesn’t just waste time and social capital. It can make things worse. For most organizations, it’s just another example of putting glitter on sh*t instead of getting out a shovel.
While it’s not up to workplaces to solve racism on their own, we can play an important role by doing what is ours to do. This requires being different, not just doing things differently. It requires changing the fundamentals of how we think and work. It requires changing systems, structures, processes, cultures, and habits — which requires time, attention, commitment, expertise, and patience.
So before you have “a conversation” about race or racism in your organization, ask yourself what I asked my client on the video call: Are you prepared to do what’s truly necessary to create real, sustainable change? Are you prepared to have all of the necessary conversations? With everyone? If not, then it might be better not to have a conversation at all.