Confronting Racism in Organizations

Organizations that are willing to have courageous conversations about racism gain from having a more engaged and committed workforce where everyone feels they belong.

Many well-meaning organizations that want to address inclusion and diversity hope to resolve these issues with a program that addresses Unconscious Bias at work. However, when it comes to addressing race, there often is a drift into a safer place. Organizations are trying to “whitewash” their diversity and inclusion initiatives by ignoring the deeply held truths about racism in their organizations and society because of the fear that going there will open wounds best left untouched.

The need to focus on racism in particular is essential if organizations wish to ever be inclusive. The term, “racism,” has become a synonym for all kinds of bias, but not all bias is racism. For example, bias against religious groups is not racism. But just because this is not racism does not reduce the impact or significance of bias against these groups.

Racism is a prejudice or act of discrimination against someone based on biological factors, which in the U.S., is euphemistically referred to as “people of color.” While there are hundreds of potential racial characteristics, the predominant one in the U.S. is skin color. Racism in the U.S. is built on historical legacy and practices that continue to impact our interactions across racial lines.

The avoidance of having an open discussion about race in organizations and communities must be addressed if inclusion is going to be achieved.

MISSING THE MARK

Here are a few examples where training programs drifted away from discussing race:

A. In selecting a video to demonstrate differences in perceptions, the diversity team of a Fortune 100 company had a choice of using a video that dramatically demonstrated people’s perceptions of a black teenager, an Asian storeowner, and a white elderly female, or a video with an upbeat and positive tone, demonstrating accomplished people who were blind, Asian, female, black, and on the autism spectrum. The team also had the choice of using both videos at different parts of the program. Each video was less than four minutes long.

The overwhelming majority of those on the team wanted to only use the more positive video. The African-American women on the team made it clear that if the company wanted to stay safe in the “shallow waters,” it would never be a place where black employees feel welcome. “We must go into the deep water because that is where the black employees spend their lives,” they said. The jury is still out on which video they will use.

B. A major manufacturer in the Midwest wanted to see what it could do to recruit and retain more black employees. The community where the headquarters and manufacturing plant were located was overwhelmingly white. To address this issue, 20 senior leaders were invited to a one-day retreat on the “Impact of Unconscious Bias on Recruiting, Retaining, Developing, and Engaging Underrepresented Groups” (which was their code word for African-Americans).

The audience for the program was made up mostly of white men, with five white women and one African-American man. The program began by laying down the foundations of the meaning of Unconscious Bias, the Neurosciences of Bias, and the role Unconscious Bias plays in the workplace. The discussion then turned to why they thought the company had such a bad record of retaining black employees.

The one black leader in the room said he wanted to share something he had never told anyone at work. When he first moved to the town, he wanted to jog in the park. His wife told him to wear a full jogging suit, so it would be clear he was jogging like everyone else. Since it was hot and humid, he decided to wear a T-shirt and shorts instead. After 10 minutes of jogging and some “unfriendly” stares, a police car pulled up next to him and asked for his identification papers, his reason for being in the park, where he lived etc. While the interrogation was taking place, a small crowd was gathering. Since he was new in the community and did not want to be seen being stopped by the police, he volunteered to go directly back to his home. From then on, he always wore a full jogging suit regardless of the weather.

When the facilitator asked the leaders what they thought of the incident, they blamed it on a “bad cop.” They did not want to address the very real pain and humiliation their co-worker experienced. They could not accept that this incident was common in their community and that this practice of racism was directly tied to the reason they could not retain black employees. When asked if the company might be willing to hold a community meeting with the police to discuss the topic, there was total denial of a “problem.” Discussing the reality of racism was going to be ignored since it was too controversial to discuss honestly.

C. A large financial organization asked to have a customized program developed to help its leaders and managers become more inclusive. The program was designed by an external consulting group, which worked for more than a month with the chief diversity officer, who approved the final draft. The program content included several hypothetical cases and interactive sharing of beliefs, values, and biases. Five days before the program launch, the organization’s legal department determined there could be no discussion of “privilege,” no discussion of actual cases of perceived bias people may have experienced at work, and no discussion of any possible biases people in the training program may have.

The chief diversity officer had no choice but to adhere to the legal department’s wishes, which resulted in a watered-down program that eliminated any critical conversations about race.

SWIMMING IN THE DEEP WATER

Organizations that are willing to have courageous conversations about racism gain from having a more engaged and committed workforce where everyone feels they belong. Such an undertaking must be done in a safe environment and led by an experienced facilitator who knows how to teach people “how to swim in the deep water.”

Please share your experiences in leading or participating in training on sensitive topics such as racism with me at: ngoodman@global-dynamics.com.

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 ngoodman@globaldynamics. com. For more information, visit http://www.globaldynamics. com.

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