Employees increasingly are polarized and unsure of how to discuss open displays of racism. People of color are exhausted and traumatized by the murder of innocent Black citizens. Their co-workers want to reach out but feel uncomfortable and intimidated discussing racism because they are unable to share their true feelings for fear of being misunderstood, or seen as vulnerable or biased. In response to this need, public institutions such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture are providing public tools to promote understanding (https://nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race).
While these resources are valuable, they do not address the critical internal needs and expressions of concern for most organizations. I recently received an e-mail from a client, which read in part: “We have an urgent need. In light of the events happening after the murder of George Floyd, many of our Black professionals are struggling, as well as colleagues who want to provide support but don’t know how. We want to bring in a skilled Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) facilitator to facilitate a virtual conversation with employees who are interested. We want to do this ASAP.”
Unfortunately, many organizations are putting their heads in the sand, hoping their employees will not want to discuss this topic. This approach is dismissive and antithetical to an inclusive organization. Forward-thinking organizations have already created forums to bring diverse employees together to share their experiences and deepest concerns and fears in the hope that coalitions of understanding and support will result from these interventions.
Successful programs to address racial inequity are designed to uncover the hidden barriers and blindspots that are so critical for open truthful discussions of complex and sensitive issues. By discussing these in a professionally moderated workshop, participants can find common ground for sharing and healing, resulting in coalitions of understanding.
Here is a summary of best practices for organizing critical conversations about racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion based on scores of successful programs on this topic and interviews with participants and executives.
KEY SUCCESS FACTORS
1. Garner executive support and leadership: There must be a clear and unambiguous statement from the company’s president/CEO that these conversations will be critical to the future of the organization and that these discussions are just a small but important part of the journey. Senior executives should attend one or more of these sessions.
2. Create realistic expectations: While the program will discuss racial inequities, it will not end racism. These programs are meant to be small steps to build coalitions and to help employees from diverse backgrounds to build common ground. These programs must be part of a larger Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion corporate initiative.
3. Select the right facilitator: These programs must be led by someone who has the communication skills of a coach and the wisdom of someone who has been in the diversity field for many years. The facilitator must quickly create a (virtual) environment of trust and then quietly lead the discussion. There are serious risks in having an internal HR, Diversity, or senior executive lead these sessions because of the very sensitive nature of these conversation. Should an internal facilitator make a mistake, their credibility and trust could be lost.
4. Come to consensus on ground rules: To create an environment of trust and truth sharing, participants should be provided with a clear list of ground rules and should be given the opportunity to contribute their own ground rules.
5. Determine program length, content, and style: There is no magic length. If done right, much can be achieved as a first step in a two-hour in-person or virtual session with cameras on. The program should provide a combination of learning methods, including: polling, breakout room discussions and sharing of whiteboards, videos, time for sharing ideas and reflections, and tips for going forward and being an ally. A discussion of bystander apathy and silence should be included.
6. Be prepared to address all aspects of diversity: While acts of racism and racial inequity led to the current need for these discussions, all participants should have the opportunity to discuss their own experiences of bias and inequity based on religion, sexual identity, ethnicity, and other dimensions of diversity (for more on these dimensions, check out this article: http://pubs.royle.com/publication/?i=88853&p=68).
7. Integrate sustainability into the program: Participants should be provided with guidelines of follow-up recommendations. Participants should receive short podcasts, YouTube and Ted Talk links, and articles once a month that they can discuss in large or small groups to support each other.
A successful program will elicit profound thoughts and reflections. A program I recently attended was one of the most powerful and memorable I have ever observed—and I have been leading antibias programs since 1963. Because of the skill of the facilitator, participants shared stories they never told their co-workers. One Caucasian participant discussed how she felt when on a business trip sitting on a flight with two Black co-workers, a flight attendant approached her and asked if she wanted to be reseated. Numerous Black participants relayed the many times they had to talk with their children about how to behave so others would not see them as threats or engaged in some illegal activity. For example, “Do not walk around a store with an open bag.” Black employees explained just how exhausting it is to be Black in a racist society, even in a workplace that promotes diversity. Participants also revealed how many of them stopped using social media because of all the hateful racist comments. There was general agreement that Millennial employees are more committed to taking action to remedy inequities at work and in society.
The program began and ended with each participant offering one-word descriptions of how they were feeling. The words at the beginning of the program included: frustrated, cautious, overwhelmed, concerned, and similar sentiments. The words at the end of the program were: optimistic, hopeful, encouraged, ready, and open.
Participants were relieved to hear their fellow employees shared the same concerns, experiences, and fears. Not only were they given specific tips on how to be an ally and support each other, but they contributed their own solutions and offers to be support buddies when observing polarizing or biased statements or actions at work. One of the participants who was part of a religious minority wrote to all his colleagues: “You all are an amazing group and I was overwhelmed by the love and compassion you all showed toward each other and the cause. I truly left the conversation humbled, emotional, and ready!”
Providing employees a forum for open curated discussions on racism and other forms of bigotry in a safe and empathetic environment will not only result in building coalitions across differences, but lead to greater productivity and innovation, higher engagement scores, and retention of valuable employees. There has never been a better time to shine light on these topics that have been ignored due to fear. Employees will feel a much greater sense of belonging if such programs follow these best practices.
For more information and to share your own experiences with open discussions on racism and equity, e-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence will be treated confidentially.
Neal Goodman, Ph.D., is president of Global Dynamics, Inc., a training and development firm specializing in globalization, cultural intelligence, effective virtual workplaces, and diversity and inclusion. He can be reached at 305.682.7883 and at email@example.com. For more information, visit http://www.globaldynamics.com.