How to Talk About Racial Inequality at Work

Racial inequality is among the most difficult topics you can address in the workplace, or anywhere, especially with someone of a different race from your own. These conversations are a potential tinderbox waiting to explode with the least provocation. But with the protests over the last couple of weeks, and the renewed debate about racial inequality in the treatment of African-Americans by police, avoiding the conversation altogether is not a solution. Racial inequality is at the forefront of many peoples’ minds, and likely will work its way into many other conversations.

I found a helpful article on how best to have these conversations on the CNBC Website. The article was written by Jennifer Liu, who spoke with Kwame Christian, a mediator, author, and speaker who spent several years working as a legal analyst focused on issues such as health equity, criminal justice, and civil rights. He is now director of the American Negotiation Institute. “Christian says a good place to start a difficult conversation is to acknowledge its difficulty and validate the other person’s feelings, whether it’s shock, sadness, anger, confusion, or shared discomfort. Second, get curious and ask open questions to better understand the other person’s viewpoints,” Liu writes. “Phrasing responses as “It seems as though you feel this way,” “Out of curiosity, why do you feel that way” or “That’s an interesting point, but I have a few questions about that” can help break down the emotional barriers to discussing uncomfortable topics, so the other person doesn’t feel defensive in explaining themselves.”

One place you may find employees embroiled in such difficult conversations is marketing. It is important for marketing managers at companies to prepare for an increased focus by both employees, and your customers, on how African-Americans and other minorities are represented in your marketing. For instance, do depictions of African-Americans, or any other group, pigeonhole or stereotype? Does your advertising tend to only depict African-Americans and Hispanics in service-economy job roles, rather than executive roles? How frequently do non-Caucasians appear in your advertising? Are they portrayed in your marketing in a less positive light than Caucasians are depicted?

A challenging aspect of the conversation is acceptance that Caucasian employees may not have the same perception of marketing as non-Caucasians. That means advertising that appears balanced and inclusive to a Caucasian may not appear the same way to someone with a difference racial or ethnic background. Training that alerts employees to the possibility that there is a lot they are missing, which someone from a different background may pick up, is important. What is the best way to teach employees this important lesson? One idea is to get a diverse group of employees, representing people of many different backgrounds, together in one room, or online meeting space, to do an exercise together. Show the group a series of advertising chosen at random by someone from your Learning team. After each image is shown, ask the participants to type in a few sentences of first impressions about what they just saw. Then, read some of the responses that were typed in. It may be shocking how much the impressions of the images diverge among people who come from different places and cultures. It’s important not to simply go around the room asking for impressions out loud, as it is likely the impressions of those who come after the first one or two people will be modeled on whatever those first one or two people say. Having participants type in responses without knowing what anyone else in the room is saying ensures honest input. Having participants type their impressions rather than speak them aloud also allows for anonymity, which can lead to even more honesty.

The second step in the exercise is the harder part—talking about the “why” behind the participants’ impressions of the images shared. Many unconscious biases may come to light, such as why a person of a particular race, gender, or ethnic group, didn’t seem to fit in a particular job role, or why some people in the room had a negative first impression of an individual in an image, while others in the room did not have those same feelings. We all hold stereotypes and prejudices of one kind or another. The important part of the racial inequality conversation is becoming conscious of our own shortcomings, and finding ways to not let those shortcomings impact how we treat others.

Are you preparing training programs or exercises to turn the current events we are living through into teachable moments for your employees?



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