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It’s OK to Talk About Race at Work

Businesswoman sitting surrounded by coworkersBusinesswoman sitting surrounded by coworkers

The Fortune 500 Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in America’s startup scene contribute answers to timely questions about entrepreneurship and careers. Today’s answer to the question: How do you encourage diversity in the workplace? is written by Erika Hopkins, head of inclusion and diversity at Staples.

In most organizations, diversity is defined as all of the ways we are different—not just based on our race, gender, or age, but also in our perspectives, backgrounds, and styles of thinking. We encourage diversity in many ways, including listening sessions and focus groups that address issues like workplace flexibility, community relations, and company culture. In doing so, our people can see the value we place on their input and contributions. It becomes contagious and any company can do it. As more people feel encouraged bringing out their unique perspectives, the domino effect ensues.

You can encourage diversity at work through the development of associate resource groups, or ARGs, like we do at Staples. This is a collection of people that share distinctive qualities, interests, or goals. They are a key driver of our inclusion and diversity strategy and they help to develop, engage and retain our talent while also creating cultural awareness.

This model can be used at any company even if you don’t have ARGs. As long as you have a method to create bonds with your associates, you will see an increase in their engagement within the organization.

Our guidelines stipulate that each ARG must open its membership to anyone interested in the group’s mission and goals, regardless of whether that person comes from the ARG’s principal constituency. In this way, men who support women’s professional progress can join our Women Who Lead ARG which promotes equity for women in every career stage. For example, white employees can join our African-American, Hispanic or Pan-Asian ARGs, and baby boomers like me can join our group focused on young professionals (typically 18 to 35-year-olds). This open membership practice is instrumental in encouraging a diverse and inclusive workplace. People with commonalities have a place to connect among themselves and with others who may be interested in broadening their cultural competence.

It is also helpful to foster an open environment where our employees can be their authentic selves. To achieve this, opportunities need to be provided for people to talk through issues that affect them both at and outside of work. It would be naïve to think that people can simply check their feelings or beliefs at the door when they come to work.

As racial tensions have increased around the country of late, we wanted to provide a way for our associates to talk about the often uncomfortable topic. To that end, we recently hosted an open discussion entitled “Race Is NOT a Four-Letter Word.” At the forum, hosted by our Black Ties ARG, associates from all racial backgrounds gathered to share their emotional, real-life experiences with bias and racism. Most employees walked away with a greater understanding of how prejudice and racism impact each of us and we’re now planning a virtual forum to offer our field associates the opportunity to express themselves and learn from others as well.

In general, you have to provide opportunities for your employees to express themselves in order to be a truly diverse and inclusive organization. If you are successful, you will become more transparent, open and collaborative as a team. Always celebrate and leverage the unique differences that help employees feel that they belong at the workplace.