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Is Now the Time to Talk About Race at Work?

Written by: Charla Bizios Stevens

The resounding answer is yes – and here’s how to start

Published in NH Business Review (7/14/2020)

At the beginning of the pandemic and our shift to remote work our inboxes were overflowing with tips and tricks to work efficiently from home, to avoid the effects of burnout and isolation, and to safeguard the emotional well-being of our employees, children, and friends.  After a while the advice became repetitive, and we all settled into doing whatever it was we were going to do assuming all would do what was best for themselves.  Whether that worked is still a long way from being determined. 

More recently, after the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Brionna Taylor, the daily influx of media has shifted to race, as though somehow now this is really the time we tackle the issue.  Now we get daily advice on talking about race, becoming an ally, and re-energizing our tired old Diversity and Inclusion plans.  These events were so graphic, so disturbing that hundreds of businesses felt the need to issue public statements denouncing racism.  Thousands of people of every age, race, and demographic were compelled to take to the streets, mostly masked and sometimes socially distant, to march against injustice in the middle of a pandemic.  And yes, there are many resources available to employers to help focus the conversation in a positive, rather than polarizing, way. 

In the past month I have read countless articles and listened to webinars and podcasts to find one or two nuggets to take back to clients and friends who ask what workplaces in overwhelmingly white New Hampshire should be doing to address the issue of race.  I have even been asked, “Do white workplaces need to talk about race?”   The resounding answer is yes.  First, your workplace may not be as white as you think.  Do your employees have black relatives or mixed race children? Do you want to recruit and retain a diverse workforce?  Do you have customers and clients of different races? Do you interact with vendors and constituents in other parts of the country or the world?  Are you an island unto yourself or do you want to be part of the solution?

The question then turns to whether now is the time.   Businesses may be struggling to stay afloat, people are being laid off, tensions and stress are high, people are still working remotely.  Wouldn’t it be easier just to put off the conversation to a more convenient time?  Of course, it’s always easier to pull a Scarlet O’Hara and put off the hard work to another day, but history does not always allow us to pick the perfect time to confront an issue which needs to be confronted. 

What follows are some of the nuggets I have heard which might help a workplace start the conversation:

  • In an article in Forbes, Ebony K. Williams tells us that race is the single most taboo topic in most American workplaces. People would rather discuss the polarizing topics of money, sex, or even politics, before engaging in conversation about race or racism.  Williams suggests that businesses begin the conversation by 1) stating an intention to create a safe space in which to engage in the dialog; 2) doing preparation work including studying some of the more recent history of racism in the US (i.e. it’s not just about slavery); and 3) acknowledging that you as a leader do not have all the answers and are willing to listen.
  • Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary offers a framework for middle managers in corporate environments to initiate conversations about race in the workplace.  Using the acronym RACE she outlines that framework and reminds managers that the key to successful conversations is allowing the participants to speak and to offer suggestions without being judged.  Conversations should take place among people of diverse opinions and backgrounds, and people should be encouraged to share their personal experiences with racism.  Town hall meetings, online discussions and breakout sessions are all effective tools if used properly.
  • In a recent webinar Courageous Conversations - Unpolarizing the Workplace, Jackie Glenn of Glenn Diversity & HR Solutions reminded listeners that leadership on diversity and inclusion must come from the top.  No, the diversity committee should not be chaired by the lone African American manager on your staff.  Of course, he or she must participate if willing.  Glenn however notes that the diversity and inclusion committee at Dell Computer was at its inception chaired by Michael Dell. 

It is also important that we not forget as we forge into what we should expect will be uncomfortable conversations, that diversity takes on many tones.  We haven’t yet solved the issues of discrimination on the basis of gender, age, religion, sexual orientation or handicap; and those who have experienced discrimination of any kind, have much to offer in the way of perspective and solutions. 

Charla Stevens is a director at McLane Middleton and chair of the firm’s Employment Law Practice Group.  She can be reached at (603) 628-1636 or [email protected].

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