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Cultivating productive conversations at work on diversity, inclusion in a time of social unrest

web-sig_kathleen-driscoll_“I’m in charge of a diverse sales team which has been working remotely. Before the pandemic, we had some fun times and what I thought was a relatively harmonious work environment. Now that people are coming back to the office, I’m worried that there will be some conflict in the office about recent protests over racial injustice. How do I foster healthy discussion and still maintain a reasonably harmonious workplace?”

It’s a significant question being raised in workplaces around the country. Between the pandemic and the the issues being raised nationally around racial injustice, it’s a troubling, uneasy time. And there are lots of opportunities for unprecedented levels of conflict at work.

“Whether they’re returning to the office or having been in the office — and wanting to find a way to address the topic without being confrontational or making people feel uncomfortable — this poses an interesting dilemma for managers to think through. What’s a productive way to facilitate this discussion and do it in a way that’s inclusive?” says Talethea Best, principal with Best Innovations Consulting in Victor, who is working with local companies on these issues.

The best first step is to begin the conversation.

“Create a space that allows your team members to talk about their experiences — that’s where a lot of learning can take place on both sides,” she says. “Your team can talk about what the protests around the country have meant to them and their families and their feelings about their own experiences.

“You’re creating a space for those thoughts and experiences to be shared. I find that’s a great way to get to know people of color on your team — beyond the typical tasks and projects.”

Instead of waiting for your team to raise the topic, be proactive about it.

“I recommend beginning the discussion as opposed to waiting for it to come to you,” says Donathan Brown, assistant provost and assistant vice president in the Division of Diversity and Inclusion at Rochester Institute of Technology. “In doing so, this affords you the time to set the   tone and agenda, while also preparing your thoughts and remarks. Otherwise you may find yourself unprepared and sideswiped if you wait for it to arise through other channels.”

Will it be uncomfortable? Yes, most likely. And it’s best to acknowledge that and be open about it.

“It’s a fundamental first step. It may be uncomfortable, and that’s OK,” Best says.

At the outset, keep it simple and don’t worry about setting up a specific agenda or next steps.  Open it up to conversation about current experiences and you can use that to begin to guide what next steps need to be taken, she says.

You can set the stage by educating yourself on racial injustice and its effects.

“Having that awareness is so valuable, as you’ll feel more confident initiating touchy conversations and responding to challenging questions. And be proactive in having those conversations, either one-on-one or in groups,” says Angela Berg, partner and Global Diversity & Inclusion leader at Mercer, the global consulting firm specializing in health, benefits, investments and talent strategy. “It’s important to let colleagues know that their own personal commitment to social justice is welcomed and supported. Be specific in your choice of words. Acknowledge that systemic racism exists.”

If you think you need help and advice, be sure to get it. Your company’s in-house experts in human resources or organizational development can help you as well as outside consultants, and they can often provide a number of different approaches and options depending on the needs of the team.

It’s important to remember that everyone on the team is in a different place on this topic. And if you’ve never done anything like this before, these conversations are “a big opportunity for growth,” Best says.

As you know, this will be a time for some serious self-examination on your team and in your company, and, as a result, you are likely to be reviewing all your company’s practices in diversity and inclusion.

According to a 2020 Mercer report called “Let’s Get Real About Equality,” one out of three U.S. organizations do not track employee representation by race/ethnicity and career level and nearly half do not track rates of hiring, promotion and exits by race/ethnicity and career level.

Along those lines, you’ll want to work toward creating a culture and environment where actions result from these types of conversations, Best says.

“As a manager, you have an opportunity to think about the makeup of your team and assessing your team in a really progressive way and make sure you’ve got broad representation when it comes to race, gender, age and the like,” she says. “It’s a real opportunity to look at your team with an anti-racist lens. And that requires you to view the success of Black and Brown individuals as central to your own success.”

And if you work with employment agencies to fill positions, make sure that those you partner with are fulfilling this mission as well, she says.

“Make sure (your partners) are providing diverse candidates on a consistent basis and you’re onboarding them with that in mind, as well,” Best says.

In conversations with your team, experts stress the importance of candor.

“It’s important to facilitate conversations around what your organization has been doing to address inequality and what future plans are,” Berg says. “It’s OK to admit that you’re just at the beginning of that effort or that it hasn’t gotten very far. Just be very specific and transparent in what’s coming next. That candidness will help establish trust and defuse potential conflict.”

These conversations are exposing problems. The publication Quartz at Work, for example, reported that employees at Conde Nast raised very serious concerns about discrimination complaints and pay disparities that had been ignored after the CEO suggested that employees hadn’t taken the opportunities they had to use internal channels to raise their concerns.

As you talk to your team, remember that both the content and context are critical in the conversation, Brown says.

“Workplace conversations on race and racism are better fostered when paired with your organizational values,” he says. “Be prepared to discuss how ongoing unrest over racial injustice not only affects those values, but also your customers, staff and community.”

At this point, best practices are evolving. Some companies are holding these conversations on a regular basis while others are considering other strategies, Best says.

Remember, too, that it’s early days in all these discussions.

“Just like we’re learning about COVID — and it’s continuing to evolve — we should expect the same thing in our conversations and practices,” Best says. “The more we do them, the better we’ll get and the more we’ll learn. Six months from now, we’re likely to have even more on what works and what doesn’t work. But it all starts with opening up the conversation.”

Managers at Work is a monthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by email at kadriscoll20@gmail.com.

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