How do I talk about race at work? - Technical.ly

Company Culture

Jun. 9, 2020 12:51 pm

How do I talk about race at work?

Hear from two diversity and cultural competency experts on long-term change and short-term starts on this episode of The TWIJ Show from Technical.ly.
Jael K.D.L.V. Chambers at left; Alyssa Vásquez at right.

Jael K.D.L.V. Chambers at left; Alyssa Vásquez at right.

(Image by Technical.ly)

Bigotry is untended ignorance.

To approach the overwhelming gulf in the lived experience between Americans from different backgrounds, it takes a lifetime of work, patience and empathy. For many Americans, if serious conversations about race happen at all, they may do so with family and friends. About two-thirds of Black and Asian Americans report talking often or sometimes about race, compared to half of white and Latinx people. But it’s still a rare conversation at work.

That needs to change.

This month is Racial Equity Month in Technical.ly’s editorial calendar, a topic that has coincided with one of the most consequential moments in the history of American racial equity: A gruesome video of a white police officer in Minneapolis killing a Black man named George Floyd sparked a week of protests around the country, indeed the world, from tens of thousands in big cities to inspiring gatherings in small towns.

Though the spark is painfully familiar — the killing of a Black man by police — it has proven a flashpoint. No workplace can ignore this moment, and no workplace should ever ignore this issue.

That’s why on this week’s episode of The TWIJ Show from Technical.ly, a weekly interview series on building better companies, we’re discussing: How do you talk about race at work?

I spoke to two advisers at Philadelphia-based diversity consulting firm Cultured Enuf, including President Jael K.D.L.V. Chambers and diversity and inclusion trainer Alyssa Vásquez.

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Assess your foundation.

How comfortably race can be discussed at any given workplace can range widely, from freely to rarely to toxically.

“A lot of leaders hop into an uncomfortable issue without setting the table for having psychological safety,” said Chambers. When Cultured Enuf works with a client, they begin with a “diversity audit,” assessing the team’s history, relationships and dynamics.

Whether you’re a CEO, an HR professional, a team manager or an individual contributor, it is important first to understand the environment or context any conversation might take place. This is simpler, if still sensitive, if your organization already has dialogue about race and complex systems. If this is rare, it will take time, no matter your own background or experience.

If you’re a white organizational leader thinking about to address your team now, or during other flashpoints on race, start here.

Do the work. Invest in relationships.

The secret here is starting small with what always goes into relationships: consistently asking about and learning about the lives of your coworkers, not when there is a national crisis, but always.

White professionals, do not look to your Black coworkers, or other people of color, for advice or guidance. Read a book, take a course, consume the rich resources online. Educate yourself. Work with a paid expert. Get comfortable engaging with challenging material on the topic of race with likeminded friends.

Professionals of color, if you want to start a conversation at your organization, do what feels most comfortable for you. If you have a coworker you feel comfortable talking about race, do so. But if you’re being asked, formally or informally, to be a guide about race, do not feel forced.

Chambers advises, “It is OK to say, ‘At this moment I don’t have the capacity to explain this; can the company bring someone in to discuss this?'”

A good assessment of how serious an organization is to engage with this work is whether the CEO and other organizational leaders have gone on their own journeys.

“Can those leaders name their privilege? Do they understand there is learning? Are you willing to challenge structure?” said Chambers.

If this is truly important to you, start early and don’t put it off. Some say, “when my company gets bigger, I will address these issues — but instead you are creating your values now, you’re building your culture now, so when you get bigger it is not a problem later,” said Chambers. It’s a lot harder when you have 15 employees or 50 or 500 or 1,000 employees.

Look for courses or resources, like an anti-racism seminar for white professionals.

Be vulnerable. Hold empathy.

For all the preparation, talking about race begins by talking about anything difficult or complex: It requires, space, relationships and empathy.

“People don’t realize how triggering the ‘How was your weekend’ can be,” said Chambers. For a professional disengaged in, for example, the George Floyd protests, that question might be alarming for those who are involved. That can make for tense circumstances whenever a conversation about race comes up.

Vásquez notes that talking about race is often difficult for people of all backgrounds for different reasons. Professionals need to recognize and name that when confronting the topic.

“Be vulnerable. It is not a sign of weakness,” she said. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about race, say so. Listen.

“A lot of leaders make themselves [out to be] better than who they are,” said Chambers.

A familiar trap for professionals is to want to be seen as expert on something as important as race and cultural competency, setting themselves up for failure.

“Most white people have never talked about race, they have no experience in it. [Naming that weakness] can take the pressure off that people have to be perfect. You can correct when I’m wrong,” he said. “We have not humanized this. These are real people who don’t always feel cared for and supported. Psychological safety first.”

Set goals.

“When you understand your own lack of experience, you can work backward” toward what you want to be able to address, said Vásquez.

This is going to be different for different organizations. The highest-level goals include topics like pay equity and expecting an organization’s leadership and team resemble the communities they serve. Comparing the retention rates of employees from different races is important. To get there, creating a safe, productive and honest working environment is key.

Every company should likely have something like a diversity task force that is always setting, working toward and resetting three-year goals, said Chambers. His firm helps set and monitor these. This is easier when leadership is fully engaged.

If professionals are energized by this but their leaders aren’t yet, it isn’t hopeless.

“You can hold your leaders accountable,” Chambers said. “There are things you can do at any level. We have more power than we think.”

His point is to look at your team, your department, your area of expertise: What is your responsibility?

If you’re an employee who sets a goal of a specific kind of engagement from your employer, look for guidance. For example, find a template here of ways to engage an employer around racial justice.

Plan for follow-through.

The rush for an all-team town hall to address some national moment is likely a mistake if it isn’t a routine part of your organizational culture. It’s important to use the authentic culture already embedded in your organization, said Vásquez.

Beyond a conversation, “can you put resources behind this?” noted Vásquez.

If your organization is ill-equipped for moments such as today, that likely is a sign that substantial work needs to be done. Staff conversations, like during service projects or other safe spaces, help. Trainings do, too, but “training doesn’t change behavior, it gives knowledge,” said Chambers.

Beyond a base set of information for all staff, he prefers optional trainings to see who wants to put in the work. Transparent goals are crucial. But it will come down to where you stand.

Pay employees to do real work, fund trainings and take a stand when you can lose money, said Chambers. More and more employees will be loyal to organizations that back issues like racial justice, and will lose passion for those that don’t. But this will never be a one-and-done situation, said Vásquez.

The work is important, but you just can’t fake this, she said: “It all comes back to relationships.”

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