Conversations About Race You Should Be Having In Your Workplace

It’s clear that the United States has hit a major turning point, one that’s poised to drastically alter how we live our lives, at home and in the workplace. We’re experiencing both a resurgence of COVID-19 outbreaks and a cultural awakening of sorts: In response to the murder of George Floyd, U.S. citizens are protesting the nation’s deeply rooted systemic racism en masse. 

The nation’s current state of unrest is impacting individuals and corporate entities alike. Now, more than ever, companies and business owners are looking inward at their own biases, intentional or unintentional alike, in order to foster a more inclusive work environment. In many cases, that sort of company-wide introspection is easier said than done.

In and out of the workplace, diversity is primarily treated as a political issue rather than a social or humanitarian one. Generally speaking, politics is an intellectual concept, but it can spark a strong emotional response, particularly in the realm of fear. Thus, companies of every size, and in every industry are unsure of how to best support the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) community.

Cultivating inclusivity and embracing diversity in the workplace is a delicate process, and mistakes can happen. The unfortunate reality is that unintentional, casual, and passive instances of racism are woefully commonplace. Interestingly, the workplace serves as an ideal avenue for curbing unintentional racist behaviors and policies. 

From the boardroom to the sales floor and beyond, actively identifying instances of casual racism and/or racist practices on a company level can help ignite vital conversations and fuel change. Even among America’s most inclusive companies, it’s likely that you’ll have plenty to talk about. 

Defining Diversity in a Global Society

In 2020, the world is interconnected more than ever before, allowing us to interact with people from all walks of life on a daily basis. Countless businesses have a global reach as well; therefore, cultural diversity is the backbone of success in today’s international workplace landscape. Yet in that landscape itself, there is mounting evidence of racial and economic disparity among minority workers. 

For starters, Black and Hispanic workers are paid considerably less than whites and Asians. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data indicates that the median weekly earnings for Hispanic full-time workers were $680 in 2018, compared to $916 for white workers. Further, jobless rates are considerably higher for minority populations, a trend that was already firmly in place long before COVID-19 swept across the nation.

It’s abundantly clear that, as a nation, we still have a long way to go before we fully accept and embrace the differences in our fellow humans. Until then, however, plenty of companies, as well as entire industries, have begun to recognize the inherent importance of diversity in the workplace. Healthcare professionals such as family nurse practitioners (FNPs), for example, are keenly aware of the unequal treatment of minorities within the healthcare system. 

In response, the healthcare industry is working to recruit and train a more diverse workforce. By cultivating diversity among healthcare workers, medical facilities may be better equipped to treat patients from all racial backgrounds. 

It’s worth noting that a single conversation about race and diversity isn’t enough to create lasting change. Instead, encourage frequent workplace conversations about race, and don’t shy away from controversial topics.

Minorities in the Workforce: An Uphill Battle

As the topics of race and inequality continue to pop up in workplace discussions, it becomes easier for everyone. Transparency and open communication are vital during this time, as every employee should feel comfortable enough to discuss race-related topics with co-workers and management alike.

Whether you’re a manager, owner, HR professional, or a concerned member of the general workforce, there are a variety of tools at your disposal when it comes to confronting racism. Offer relevant reading material via company email, and/or bring up race-related topics and questions at your monthly staff meeting. Make sure to do your research: Begin by identifying which workers are most affected by harmful practices and racist policies. 

For instance, Hispanic workers have a vastly disproportionate on-the-job death rate when compared to the general population. Workplace fatalities among Hispanics are 19% higher than the national average, and the reasons are complicated. To begin with, data indicates that Hispanics are more likely to take on labor-intensive jobs, such as those within the construction industry. 

No matter the reasons behind them, acknowledging existing racial disparities is the first step towards creating lasting change, in and out of the workplace. If you need further guidance, you may find success using the so-called RACE framework, a system created for educators. Workplace conversations about race can be uncomfortable, especially in the beginning. According to the RACE model, you have to push past that anxiety and set an example by providing tangible answers, and actionable solutions, to difficult questions.

Avoiding Mistakes and Squashing Casual Racism

As previously mentioned, casual racism is widespread across America, even as the country’s population skews closer towards true diversity. The unfortunate reality is that many U.S. citizens are woefully naive when it comes to subjects such as cultural appropriation. Symbols, imagery, and policies that immediately raise red flags among minority populations may go unnoticed by particular segments of the workforce.

One notable situation in recent history occurred in 2018 when the high-end fashion brand Gucci released a knit sweater that resembled blackface. The balaclava knit sweater, which retailed at $890, covers part of the wearer’s face with a design featuring large red lips, a la Sambo. Looking at the distasteful sweater today, it’s hard to believe that it was even approved for manufacture, then subsequently marketed, without dissent from a single employee. 

Gucci’s regrettable moment serves as a poignant example of the deep roots of racism in modern society. For its part, Gucci withdrew its blackface balaclava knit following a social media backlash, and promised to work towards “increasing diversity throughout our organization.” Gucci further responded to the balaclava incident by hiring a diversity chief. 

Typically an executive-level position, a company’s diversity chief may also be known as a chief diversity officer (CDO). These professionals have become more common in recent years, and have garnered their fair share of criticism as well. Many minority workers think of diversity officers as nothing more than smoke and mirrors, whose efforts can’t fix an already racist company culture. 

Catapult columnist and CDO of a racial economic justice nonprofit, Nadia Owusu is one of those vocal critics. As she worked to facilitate workplace conversations about race, Owusu was repeatedly questioned about the “timing” of her efforts, as well as the incendiary language present in race-related conversations. Ultimately, “I had to prioritize the comfort of white employees over the clearly expressed needs of employees of color,” she writes.

Her frustrations echo that of most minority workers, who believe that more accountability is needed for those in the role of CDO. Workplace conversations about race can’t actually go anywhere unless company leaders are willing to listen and to implement necessary changes to better foster inclusivity. 

The Economics of Workplace Diversity

Cultivating a diverse workplace is, of course, the right thing to do in regards to social justice. But it’s also a smart business move. Workplace diversity is greatly beneficial on a corporate level, as it promotes customer diversity and fosters brand loyalty among consumers. In fact, adult consumers are willing to pay more for products and services from socially responsible brands, at least in the U.K. 

What’s more, consumers aren’t afraid to call out a brand or company for its values or behaviors. In fact, 40% of U.K. consumers reported that they had stopped using a brand, or never started, due to the company’s poor social values. As diversity is a major point in the realm of social justice, it’s easy to see how a more diverse workplace and company culture can boost your bottom line. 

Keeping Your Eyes and Ears Open

When it comes down to it, establishing an inclusive company culture isn’t possible without help from workers on every level. To avoid corporate blindness in regards to casual racism in the workplace, it’s also important to include troubleshooting in workplace discussions about race.  Invite employees from all backgrounds to share their experiences with casual (or blatant) racism, and offer potential solutions. 

During workplace conversations about race, it’s okay to feel uncomfortable. In fact, it’s part of the experience. By stepping into the shoes of co-workers or employees with backgrounds that differ considerably from your own, you’re likely to grow as a person. 

True empathy comes from being able to see another person’s reality, especially the parts of life that are unpleasant and embarrassing. If you feel shameful or guilty due to a race-related topic of conversation, speak up. Effective communication is a two-way street, and it’s important that every point of view is considered during workplace discussions about race.

Key Takeaways

As you work to bring lasting change to your workplace, don’t overlook the potential of intelligent, introspective workplace conversations. These types of productive discussions may lead to (long overdue) policy changes tailored towards inclusivity, and can also bring your employees closer together. For workplace leaders, whether you are a CDO or hourly employee, inviting conversations about race is a crucial step towards achieving a truly inclusive company culture and attracting more loyal customers over the long term.