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In Practice

How to Begin Talking About Race in the Workplace

Assistant Professor of Management at University of Pennsylvania

So, your company wants you to talk about race? You are not alone. Over the past few weeks, countless companies have spoken out publicly against racism and other injustices after the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, and the racist encounter between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper (no relation) in Central Park.

While racism in America is centuries old, this movement toward mass public corporate declarations to tackle racism is new. One commitment that many companies have made is to convene employees via town hall meetings to discuss race in the workplace. Some companies will feel more prepared to have these conversations since they first embarked on them four to five years ago after the multiple killings of unarmed black people in the United States, including Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Michael Brown. 

Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Beyond the C-Suite

To date, I have participated in several of these, and what generally takes place is the following: a CEO declaring an anti-racism agenda followed by structured dialogue among black, brown and white executives and managers about their experiences working in the company. In a non-virtual world, structured small breakout meetings facilitated by internal or external diversity experts typically follow these panel discussions.

Yet, given physical distancing guidelines, many companies I have spoken with recently are taking elements of their town halls to their virtual platforms while delegating other responsibilities to their mid-level managers. Mid-level managers have been charged not only with facilitating conversations about “what’s wrong” in the company, but also “what could work” in their company and on their teams. However, even when the issue is not racism — a topic that is often avoided in the workplace — many managers feel ill-equipped to offer sage advice on “what to do” when it comes to diversity and inclusion (D&I) in their organizations. As a result, D&I initiatives often never make it past the C-suite.

A Framework for Conversation

As a professor, I, too, have struggled to offer students and leaders practical strategies and frameworks for managing issues of race and equity. The types of solutions that people are looking for do not always come ready-made, and creating them can be a daunting task. Yet, recently, I developed a “RACE” framework to prepare educators to lead conversations about race in the academic setting. And, over the last several weeks, I have been contacted by a number of companies interested in understanding how this framework could be applied to their organizations.

Thus, below I have adapted the RACE framework for use by middle managers in corporate environments who would like to begin talking about race in the workplace.

R – Reduce anxiety by talking about race anyway.

Both managers and employees feel uncomfortable talking about race at work. They have been counseled through various compliance trainings not to mention or take into consideration someone’s race at work (i.e., to be “colorblind”). They also fear being called racist.

To eradicate systemic racism, it is important for managers to empower employees and provide them with resources for having productive conversations about race.

Managers can help employees feel less anxious and more efficacious about engaging in conversations related to race, equity and inclusion. One way to do this would be to discuss norms prior to engaging in difficult conversations about race. For instance, managers can invite employees to generate two or three norms they would like to observe in order to engage effectively in conversations about their racial differences. The themes I have encountered most often when doing this activity are: building a safe or brave space, practicing respectful engagement, listening actively and being constructive. Managers can also ask employees to generate two or three observable strategies that they can use to enact these norms. For example, building a safe or brave space might entail making commitments to keeping conversations confidential by not sharing the names of people contributing to the conversation and what they said outside of the conversational space.

A – Accept that anything related to race is either going to be visible or invisible.

I am a black/African-American female professor who works at an elite business school. I cannot help but “see race,” including my own. The visibility of my race in my daily experiences guides my willingness to talk about race; however, not everyone identifies with their race or conversations about race in the same way. Whether your race is visible or invisible to you and others, I think it is important to reflect on the following: What do we gain/lose when race is invisible? What do we gain/lose when race is hypervisible?

Managers can help employees find the space in between the extremes of invisibility and hypervisibility and normalize race as a dimension of diversity that is meaningful in the workplace. One way to do this would be for managers to share some of their positive and negative experiences around the visibility of their race at work. Then, managers can invite employees to do the same.

C – Call on internal and external allies for help.

Like many other racial minorities whose race is visible to others, I am often seen as the go-to expert on matters of race and diversity in the workplace. Fortunately, I am an expert on these issues as are many racial minorities in companies today. However, it is important that white managers, regardless of their expertise, also learn to facilitate conversations about race as well if they are charged with contributing to an anti-racist change agenda at work.

Managers can cultivate a network of relationships with a diverse set of internal (other managers) and external allies (professors, former colleagues, clients) who are invested in diversity, equity and inclusion. Managers can share tips and resources with members of their network, which will enable them to have the latest insights on how to facilitate conversations about race in the workplace. Managers can also encourage employees to develop a diverse network of internal and external allies as well and lean on them for help when needed.

E – Expect that you will need to provide some “answers,” practical tools, skill-based frameworks, etc.

Creating practical tools and skill-based frameworks is important for helping employees feel that including race in conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion is doable.

Managers can adapt publicly available resources (for example, lessons learned about having difficult conversations from research on Intergroup Dialogue). However, they may need to develop their own concrete and accessible “how to” frameworks. For example, I have developed a framework using the word LEAP to teach others about allyship behavior.

It is normal for managers to question whether they are doing “the right thing” when it comes to addressing issues of race and racism in the workplace. Yet, to eradicate systemic racism, it is important for managers to empower employees and provide them with resources for having productive conversations about race. Grounding these conversations in evidence and good intentions is better than not talking about race at all.

A version of this piece originally appeared on Knowledge@Wharton.

Stephanie Creary

Assistant Professor of Management at University of Pennsylvania @StephanieCreary

Stephanie Creary is the assistant professor of management in the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. She leads the Leading Diversity@Wharton Speaker Series as part of her Leading Diversity in Organizations course at Wharton.

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