The #1 Thing You Need to Do to Talk About Racism and Sexism at Work

June 10, 2016, 6:03 PM UTC
AP Poll New Years Hopes
FILE - In this May 2, 2015, file photo, protesters march through Baltimore the day after charges were announced against the police officers involved in Freddie Gray's death. According to a poll by the Associated Press and the Times Square Alliance, domestically, 44 percent of those polled rate as extremely or very important the deaths of blacks in encounters with police that sparked “Black Lives Matter” protests in Baltimore and Chicago. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
Patrick Semansky — AP

America values candid conversations and free expression. Unless you’re at work. Then candor, especially about sensitive issues, can be challenging.

Consider the series of candid conversations that likely happened at Facebook when Mark Zuckerberg was forced to reprimand the employees who scrawled “all lives matter” over “black lives matter” on the company’s famous signature wall. Twice. “I was already very disappointed by this disrespectful behavior before, but after my communication I now consider this malicious as well,” he said, in a memo obtained by Gizmodo.

There’s a lot of candid talking that needs to happen when it comes to race and bias in all industries, but particularly in tech. Jopwell, the diversity recruitment platform, recently surveyed 300 Native American, Latino and black engineers and found that 69% reported they had experienced racial bias, 16% reported gender bias and 11% reported bias based on sexuality. For employees who are stung by scrawled messages or alienated by what appears to be everyday speech, managing difficult conversations becomes a leadership imperative.

Everett Harper, the CEO and co-founder of the tech company Truss – known for fixing and expanding the website – believes that a culture of acceptance can be created by a company of any size and at any time, if the leaders are willing to do the work. (And he clearly is – Truss is also one of 11 start-ups that have just been tapped to join Project Include, a new collaborative attempt to test and share best practices in inclusion. More on that below, in “On Point.”)

Harper says that creating reliable feedback mechanisms is what helps a culture talk about and resolve difficult issues. It’s important to make sure people feel that they can be honest without penalty or punishment, and that they know they’ll be taken seriously. Having a diverse team is helpful (for that, read his manifesto on tapping “weak tie” networks) but then it’s up to leadership to encourage employees to stick around. “All employees have skills they’ve trained for. They want to use them to advance the goals of the business – and also grow, make money, or both,” he says. “Employers have to remove the biases in the system that prevent some employees from achieving that.”

Truss has a monthly meeting called a “retrospective,” where employees post sticky notes, followed by conversation. The first round is what’s going well. The second round is on what needs work. “I do a lot of listening,” he says.

He offers a small example with big implications. “We’re a multi-gendered culture,” he says. “Turns out, the term ‘you guys’, which we use constantly in Slack, actually made some people uncomfortable.” After the ‘you guys’ post-it turned into a serious talk, the engineers decided to create a polite chat bot in Slack that would prompt a user to try a different phrase, like ‘ya’ll’, ‘you people’, or even ‘youse’. It was a lightweight and easy fix. “But we had to talk it through and connect it to the bigger issue of acceptance.”

Harper emphasizes an orientation of curiosity, rather than defensiveness. “Asking questions, being curious about others keeps things open,” he says. “And open conversations build more courageous companies.”