Client: Hey Glen, we want to talk about issues involving race and identity in the workplace.
Client: We thought that we would have an open forum and give everyone a chance to share. How does that sound to you?
Me: Sounds chaotic and potentially harmful to marginalized people in your workplace.
It starts at the top. Leaders are accountable for exhibiting inclusive behaviors, addressing biases, and ensuring an inclusive workplace culture. Open discussions around race and identity issues in the workplace often feel like throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks. But, just like there are better ways to check if your pasta is al dente (like using a timer), there are better ways to address workplace sexism, homophobia, racism, and other forms of discrimination than just sticking a bunch of folks in the room and saying, “Have at it.”
Don’t do that.
Have a plan to talk about race and identity in the workplace. Here a few protocols to keep in mind BEFORE launching into conversations with your team
Key Protocols to Share with Participants and Those Leading Discussions When Talking about Race and Identity in the Workplace
- Stay engaged – Staying engaged means “remaining morally, emotionally, intellectually, and socially involved in the dialogue.” Show your employees and team members that you care enough about the issues at hand that you will not let distractions get in the way.
- Experience discomfort – Leaders need to acknowledge that discomfort is inevitable, especially in dialogue about race, gender, and sexual orientation. Facilitators and participants must commit to bringing issues into the open. Talking about these issues doesn’t create tension and divisiveness, but avoidance does.
- Speak your truth – This means being open about thoughts and feelings and not just saying what you think others want to hear. Also, speaking your truth means sharing your personal experience and direct interactions. Your truth shouldn’t come from CNN, Fox News, or your favorite social media guru. Your truth starts with you and your diligence in truly understanding the issues at hand.
- Expect and accept non-closure – This agreement asks participants to “hang out in uncertainty” and not rush to quick solutions, especially concerning complex racial and identity understandings, which require ongoing dialogue.
Now, after you have thought through the protocols, it is time to get to work. It might be best to work with a trained facilitator or subject matter expert for very complex and polarizing conversations. A neutral party can help you make progress without accusations of bias. All supervisors should have some ability to lead discussions regarding racial and other forms of workplace equity. Communication skills are important. Here are six basics to setting up these DEI conversations.
The Six Basics to Guide DEI Conversations at Work
- Introduce key terms. It is important that everyone starts with the same basic knowledge level and is talking about the same thing. If you discuss workplace racism or sexual harassment, have a clear definition of how these terms are used in your workplace.
- Come to a consensus on norms and conversation protocols. These tough conversations need to be facilitated and guided. Know and communicate objectives ahead of time. Remember, we aren’t throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks.
- Include a group experience or activity, if applicable. Interactive is better. Don’t just preach at folks. Engage people on the topic using a variety of facilitation methods. Appeal to different learning styles.
- Do periodic compass check-ins with key partners or groups to ensure you are headed in the right direction. You can check in with your employee resource group (ERG), hired consultants, or internal stakeholders.
- Ensure dialogue is started and sustained. Set the expectation for how long the conversation on the topic will last. Is it a one-time deal, or will this take place at regular intervals?
- Plan for debriefing and reflection. Once the conversation is completed, review your process and the results, if any. Did you accomplish your goals? Are your participants in agreement?
Just remember, your company is not alone in wanting to talk about race and other polarizing topics. In 2020, countless companies spoke out publically against racism and other injustices. Some did a great job, and some entered into those conversations ill-prepared. Executives and HR professionals need to empower employees and provide them with resources for having productive conversations about race and identity. Leaders can’t eliminate systemic racism and other forms of workplace discrimination without the proper tools.
Do you or your leaders need help structuring workplace conversations around race and identity? I can help. I would love to schedule a 15 min discovery call with you.