How to Have Meaningful Conversations about Race and Racism in the Workplace: A Guide for Leaders

By Dr. Ashley Lytle, Yash Joshi

The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Officer, Derek Chauvin, on May 25, 2020, sparked protests and conversations about police brutality and racial inequalities. If you are leader in a workplace, you may have been asked to be a part of—or you may have facilitated—conversations about the events that are driving this most recent push for racial justice and how they relate to conditions or employee experiences in your organization. Since the workplace often mimics society when it comes to power structures and systems that promote racial inequities, many leaders need guidance for facilitating and participating in productive conversations about race and racism in the workplace. Facilitating conversations about race and inequity should not be passive nor static, being open to new information, new experiences, and personal growth are essential.  Below we detail 7 empirically-derived methods for promoting and facilitating conversations about race, racism, and inequity.

1.   Understand the Different Forms of Racism

Though the most current calls for racial justice were prompted by an act of blatant brutality, it is important to remember that racism is not limited to acts of physical violence but also takes a range of systematic and covert forms.

Most Black Americans experience one or more forms of racism in their daily lives irrespective of their educational or socioeconomic status.

Organizations are quick to jump onto the bandwagon with statements of support when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. But these statements do not always resonate with Black employees of the organizations themselves and the Black community more broadly. There is a disconnect between these statements of commitment towards racial equality and the daily experience of those employees. Addressing this disparity requires that leaders both understand the experience of their Black employees, and take substantive action to correct inequities in the workplace

2.   Develop Awareness Around Defensiveness

People often react defensively when they anticipate a threat in their environment or feel guilt about something. Conversations about race frequently prompt this kind of response, particularly when a conversation identifies ways in which one or more participants may be directly or indirectly responsible for maintaining inequitable systems. For example, a leader who is held accountable for racial inequalities in an organization’s hiring process might react defensively. As they become increasingly uncomfortable, they might attempt to dilute, diminish, change or terminate the conversation.  Research has shown that this kind of defensive behaviour is common and deemed acceptable in conversations about race because organizations have protected individuals and the system from learning or taking corrective action.

Defensiveness runs contrary to the ability to be reflective, open to the experiences of others, and available to learn how to promote and fight for racial equity. In other words, defensive responses often function as obstacles to productive conversations about race. So how can leaders overcome, in themselves and others, defensive responses in these conversations? One study has shown that students and professors seem to agree that the ability to acknowledge, validate, and facilitate discussion of feelings was crucial to successful conversations about race. There is evidence for the need to move beyond defensiveness and towards a space where individuals can constructively talk about race and its implications for the organization.

Another approach is to place your focus on listening to and learning about racial inequity and discrimination. It is not always easy to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, but trying to understand another’s experience and worldview can go a long way in adjusting your response to conversations about race. Should criticism of you or the organization arise in a conversation, consider it a sign of belief in your abilities and openness to feedback. Developing a mindset of growth is critical to addressing these complex problems.


3.   Develop a More Nuanced View of “Good” and “Bad”

A substantial body of research suggests we all have bias and many of us unintentionally act on such biases. When confronted with evidence of the widespread nature of bias, many accept this may be true, but discount the likelihood that they themselves are biased in any way. How do we reconcile these seemingly contradictory beliefs? Recent research suggests that viewing yourself as “good-ish” instead of in a binary way (e.g., people are either “good” or “bad”), allows room to acknowledge mistakes, promotes growth, and inspires ongoing education. Thinking of yourself as purely “good” can result in defensiveness when confronted with a problem, mistake, or insensitive comment that you have made, because any wrongdoing would put you into the “bad” category. Thinking of yourself as “good-ish” gives you space to be open to criticism and available for change. Actions:

4.   Do Not Ask Black Employees to Solve Racism

It is unfair to expect solutions to or education about diversity and inclusion from the individuals experiencing racism and inequality. It is imperative for organizations to recruit people who are experts in addressing bias and increasing diversity and inclusion to create effective policies and procedures.


5.   Identify a Clear Goal for the Conversation

Formal conversations about race are more productive if they have a predefined goal. Research shows that defining goals before conversations take place helps emphasise the common ground essential to building the bonds and trust that are crucial to any discussion on racial inequality. An example of a goal for a conversation might be: “Redesign our hiring processes to remove bias.” Studies have shown that the actions and measures following a discussion about tackling race and inequality are quantifiable if there are clear goals. Entering a conversation with clear goals can help improve productivity and lead to tangible progress. It is equally important to hold conversations in appropriate settings; defining the goal for a given conversation will help you identify the best forum..


6.   Link Conversations to Substantive and Specific Actions

Abstract statements denouncing acts of violence against racial minorities often come across as a PR strategy more than an action-oriented plan for meaningful change in an organization. Put simply, such statements do not show what an organization stands for but just what it opposes. It is disingenuous for leadership to make promises in a public statement about commitment to an equitable workplace but not provide details about actual implementation or policy change. It’s important for managers to empower employees and provide them with resources (e.g., experts, books) for having productive conversations about race. Research on racial dialogues indicates that people of color consider conversations on inequality worthwhile if the discussion goes beyond talk to identify concrete actions against racism. It was unanimously agreed upon that the most unhelpful and least effective strategy was inaction, such as allowing conversations about race to linger in silence, being passive in the face of a heated exchange, or completely disregarding the argument or legitimacy of a grievance.


7.   Create an Environment of Accountability

Black employees and other employees of color have been long been overburdened with calling out racism and inequity in the workplace. Leaders need to take responsibility for creating an environment in which inequity is actively identified, acknowledged, and addressed. There must be transparency throughout the process even if it means exposing some uncomfortable facts. Good will and good intentions are insufficient to meet the organization-level challenges inherent in confronting race, power, and privilege.  It is imperative to seek expert opinions and hold yourself and other leaders accountable in the pursuit of equity.