How to talk about race in the workplace

Discussing race and diversity at work isn’t just ‘woke’. It’s good business, say experts.

Lenora Billings-Harris
Diversity expert Lenora Billings-Harris says companies must foster inclusion 'to make better decisions, raise revenues and raise their client base' [Mercedes-Benz USA]

When it comes to well-intentioned but awkward conversations about race and culture in the workplace, March of Dimes Chief People Officer Darlene Slaughter has “heard it all”.

Slaughter – a thought leader in the growing field of corporate inclusion and a former diversity officer at United Way Worldwide, the globe’s largest privately-funded nonprofit – now oversees diversity, equity and inclusion at one of the largest United States nonprofits focusing on the health of mothers and babies.

To illustrate the minefield of navigating workplace discussions about race, Slaughter raises one of the most common, well-intentioned comments she hears.

“There’s always a person that raises their hand at workshops and says, ‘I don’t see colour.’ Well, I don’t necessarily believe that. So now I have a trust issue with you,” Slaughter told Al Jazeera.

“If I ask you what am I wearing, you certainly can see the colour of my clothes. So, what I need for you to understand is that as a black woman, you can see my colour, and you can say that you see my colour, because it shapes the life experiences that I’ve had,” she said.

“If you don’t see that, then guess what? You don’t engage me in a conversation, because you think my life is just like yours. It’s not.”

The business case for racial and cultural sensibility

Regardless of whether people agree with the way Slaughter experiences and explains “not seeing colour”, employers and employees around the world are struggling with similar misunderstandings. And studies show it can negatively impact worker productivity and even corporate bottom lines.

In the United Kingdom, a 2018 survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, an association for human resources professionals, found that black, Asian, and minority ethnic groups are significantly more likely than their white British counterparts to say that they need to change aspects of their behavior to fit in. This is especially true of those from Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi backgrounds.

Across the pond, a 2017 study by the US-based Center for Talent Innovation determinedthat more than a third of black and Asian workers surveyed don’t feel their workplace is conducive to conversations about race. Less than a third of Latino and white workers felt the same way.

CTI researchers also found that black professionals who can’t share their life experiences at work are more likely to feel isolated, and are almost three times more likely than those in other racial and ethnic groups to intend to leave their employer within one year.

It’s not just black workers who are feeling disengaged. A 2014 survey from The Energy Project and Harvard Business Review concluded that most employees are working at only 42 percent of their capacity, meaning millions are going to work every day depleted, disengaged and emotionally stressed, which decreases their productivity.

This is more than a problem for employees. In Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace Report, it’s estimated that lost productivity is costing corporations between $480bn- $600bn annually in the US alone.

Meanwhile, a study last year of 1,700 companies across eight different countries by the Boston Consulting Group found that companies with diverse management teams have 19 percent higher revenues.

The reason? Diversity fosters innovation.

To err is human

Experts in the field of inclusive corporate cultures say everyone must move beyond the “shame and blame” dynamic when it comes owning their own biases.

Howard Ross, the founder of the consulting firm Cook Ross, which offers guidance on diversity, inclusion, and cultural competency to organisations around the world, stresses the importance of reframing the issue.

“We’ve emphasized that bias is a bad thing as opposed to understanding its normalcy,” Ross told Al Jazeera.

“We find a way to justify it and often we even drive it further underground, whereas if we actually got that bias is just the way human beings think – just like breathing is the way we live – we would say, ‘OK, there’s a bias. What can I do with this? How do I manage this?'” he said.

Slaughter also believes it’s helpful to create an environment where people can open up about biases in order to move past them.

“You have to sort of meet people where they are, and you have to create an environment where you break down that fear, so that people will say, ‘I don’t know, can you help me understand why?'” said Slaughter.

“If you jump all over a person immediately, it makes people either dig in, or not say anything at all,” she added.

Rethink and reframe

Lenora Billings-Harris is a diversity strategist and the author of The Diversity Advantage: A Guide to Making Diversity Work.

Named by the Society for Human Resource Management as one of its 100 Global Thought Leaders on Diversity and Inclusion, Billings-Harris urges decision-makers to stop viewing diversity as a problem and embrace it as an opportunity.

“The nugget that many people don’t quite understand is that diversity by itself is not enough,” she told Al Jazeera. “Organisations should not be searching for differences just for the sake of differences, but they need diversity of thought to make better decisions, raise revenues and raise their client base.”

Rethinking our language around diversity and inclusion will cast the issue in a different light, she added.

“I’ve heard leaders talk about the need to have a more diverse workforce in terms of risk … ‘We’re going to take a risk and get diverse candidates,'” said Billings-Harris.

“When you’re thinking of it as a risk, you’ve already created your own barrier. ‘This is going to be hard.’ ‘I’m not expecting a good result.’ Also, one of the reasons people think it’s a risk is usually because they’ve had a bad experience. They usually brought [in] someone from an underrepresented group, but they didn’t do anything in the corporate culture that welcomed diversity of thought.”

That could really end up costing companies because people with the best talent will leave if they don’t feel valued, warned Billings-Harris.

Getting real

The US Census Bureau predicts that in the US, whites will be the minority by 2044, while in the current population, 48 percent of the members of Generation Z – post-millennials between the ages of six and 21 – are from communities of colour.

Billings-Harris warns that companies must be aware of what’s happening in the world around them, adding that organisations that “truly understand this” are not only reaping revenue rewards, but creating inclusive corporate cultures that help people thrive.

Source: Al Jazeera