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Diversity

A 5-part framework for talking about racism at work

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When did you last sit down with your coworkers and boss to talk about police brutality, slavery, redlining, the Voting Rights Act, or the case for reparations?

Perhaps it’s been awhile — or not at all — but organizational leaders should convene these talks. And in their absence, upward pressure from employees, clients, or customers, can also ignite the process.

“Many people don’t know how to talk about race or racism at work,” said Enrica Ruggs, an assistant professor of management at the University of Memphis, during a recent MIT Sloan Management Review webinar on conversations about race. Ruggs is also director of the PSI Center for Workplace Diversity and Inclusion.

Majority group members, often white, don’t want to say something that will paint them as racist. Minority group members don’t want to sound like complainers, or make declarations that are interpreted as a consensus opinion for their entire race. Emotions can run hot.

“For me, talking about injustices of the past and present is emotional,” Ruggs said. “That’s okay.”

She and Derek Avery, the C.T. Bauer Chair of Inclusive Leadership at the University of Houston, explored how to discuss the complex and urgent issues of race while in the workplace. And though they spoke explicitly about Black-white race relations, the ideas can apply when considering other groups that experience discrimination.

“The conversations are challenging because the stakes are high,” Ruggs said.

In anticipation of this intensity, a few ground rules must be in place to ensure conversations both respect individuals’ expectations and stretch beyond platitudes:

  • Calibrate the scope of the conversation to the context. Is this an introductory gloss or a deep dive?
  • Determine who takes part in the conversation, whether attendance is mandatory or voluntary, and what questions will be asked.
  • Encourage follow-up questions rather than jumping on first impressions. Make it a standard practice for participants to pause before responding.

Though these conversations remain open to all viewpoints, they also demand a willingness to listen. It is easy, Ruggs said, to call somebody a racist, but refrain from that kind of reflexive response. At the same time, if an avowed racist commandeers the moment to describe the inferiority of other races, end the discussion.

Bring in professional facilitators if getting started feels too daunting, however, companies should ultimately demonstrate a genuine commitment to these issues by moving capacity in-house. And remember, Ruggs said: “One conversation won’t end racism. Let your employees know that you realize this.”

The BRAVE Framework

Along with these suggestions, Ruggs and Avery offered the BRAVE mnemonic to inform a few basic principles of the conversation. (The five suggestions below target organizational conversations; a slightly adapted version, also outlined in the webinar, supports one-on-one conversations.)

Build the intention, focus, and safety needed to have honest conversations about race. In surveys, almost 50% of Black human resources employees say they don’t feel safe sharing their thoughts on race-related issues. The result? Don’t let a planned conversation derail into a general discussion on diversity and inclusion without touching on concerns specific to race.

Companies must create a feeling of psychological safety in which employees can talk freely — a feeling that has been shown to improve team effectiveness.

Respect the sensitivity of the topic while challenging people to go beyond the superficial. Employees need to respect other people’s boundaries.

“However, and here’s the rub, we must be able to disagree within the confines of what we consider respectfulness,” Avery said. “We cannot be so intent on not offending one another that we restrict our conversations to the discussion of superficial topics.”

Acknowledge the uncomfortable realities of the past and the present. Thinking about slavery and lynching can be uncomfortable. Many present realities are also uncomfortable, from images of a police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck to suggestions that individuals and institutions uphold systems of power and oppression that perpetuate racism.

“But we have to face these truths to make progress,” Ruggs said.

Validate the experiences of your racially marginalized employees. Productive conversation requires acknowledging the reality of discrimination.

Avery recognized the legal complexity of this step — when talking about workplace prejudice, questions of liability might not be far from managers’ minds — but if one dismisses from the outset the possibility that race plays a role in lived experience, then there is no room to learn about these disparate lived experiences.

Emphasize how your company is prioritizing goals and metrics around racial equity. Conversations should lead somewhere: Emphasize specific goals and their measurement, even if that progress will take time. BRAVE conversations, Ruggs said, should include explicit steps for moving toward racial equity.

Avery said that talking about race will not — and should not — be easy. Decades of social learning and acculturation must be unwired and reconceived, and that is a lengthy process.

“These conversations are necessarily hard,” he said. “The underlying current of racial injustice is swift, and escaping it will require work.”