raceAhead: Talking about Race in the Workplace

August 5, 2016, 12:00 PM UTC

Hi, I’m Jeremy Quittner, a writer for Fortune.com’s Venture channel. I’m filling in for Ellen McGirt this week while she’s on vacation.

At a time when the national dialogue over race relations is at fever pitch, uncomfortable conversations and even anger can spill into the workplace.

Yet discussing such a hot-button issue at work can be awkward and difficult. Some may even say it’s inadvisable. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, for example, drew a lot of heat for his “Race Together” campaign from 2015, which tried to get employees to engage customers in conversations about race. Among the complaints were that it was poorly planned and a marketing ploy.

The diversity and leadership consultants I reached out to said they think it’s important for executives and other organizational leaders to address issues of race in the workplace, but it’s critical to have the right people and structures in place.

“It’s all about the preparation and skill that we approach the conversations with,” Sarah Taylor, founder and president of deepSEE Consulting, a diversity and cultural competency consulting firm in Oakdale, Minnesota, said by email. “Too often race dialogues or diversity programs in general fail because we don’t develop our skills to lead them.”

Best practices start with being open and frank, and getting people from all levels of the organization to participate, experts say. Here are some other pointers.

Consider diversity training

It’s often seen as an “i-dotting” exercise by many companies, but if done correctly, it can lay groundwork for real discussions, and next steps, says Sondra Thiederman, an expert in diversity who works with Fortune 500 companies, said by email. A diversity training program should include real information about why having a diverse staff benefits the company; it must acknowledge that all groups have unconscious biases and that all workers have the responsibility to treat one another with respect; it should include concrete steps for dealing with biases that interfere with decisions, or the ability to be respectful.


“Too often, when we speak about race, we fall into the habit of not really listening to what someone with a different point of view or life experience is saying,” Thiederman says.

Try to demonstrate what real listening looks like, says Thiederman, who adds you can do this in meetings where diversity is the focus, or during mediation between two or more employees.

“One way to show that true listening is going on is for the listener to repeat back to the speaker what they think has been said,” Thiederman says. “Not only does that reveal that the listener really is trying, it proves to the speaker that they have been understood.”

Highlight the importance of diversity to your company’s mission

“If we’re a health care or educational organization, it’s easy to see the connection of our work to race through health care or education (or) achievement gap disparities,” says Taylor. Depending on their industry, smaller businesses may have to work harder to figure out the connection, but they could, for example, stress the diversity of the community in which they’re located, or their diverse customer base. The point is that all businesses are touched by race in some way, and racial dialogue should flow from an understanding of its bearing on the business.

Create an events team, or put someone in charge of cultural outings

Find out what’s going on in your community, including theater productions, exhibits, and lectures that could help bring your team together, and serve as valuable learning experiences. “One of our clients put together a list of those resources and continues to update it with new events or activities and they encourage their employees to attend at least one event each quarter,” Taylor adds.

Above all, stress that diversity and valuing difference can only make your organization stronger, not to mention a better place to work.

“[Workplace leaders] should seek to learn more about their own racial biases and the impact it has on their actions in the organization,” Muriel Maignan Wilkins, co-founder and managing partner of Paravis Partners, an executive coaching and leadership development firm in McLean, Virginia, said in emailed comments. “Speaking about race at work is ok, and it starts at the top.”

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Ignorance is a cure for nothing.
—W.E.B. Du Bois