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How to have productive conversations about race at work


The police body camera footage, social media posts, and mounting news stories all made it clear to the leadership at software company HubSpot this summer that it was time to communicate where the company stood on race and racism. But it was the unsteady cellphone video showing the last seconds of Ahmaud Arbery’s life — and the reaction of HubSpot employees processing the images of Arbery being fatally shot while out for a Sunday run — that cemented the company’s responsibility to handle its own work in having conversations about racism.

“What we were explicit about at that juncture was it is not our [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] employees’ jobs to make people feel comfortable or to provide the context to have a conversation about race,” said HubSpot’s Chief People Officer Katie Burke, MBA ’09. “We are going to put together materials with input and insight from BIPOC employees and leaders, but then it is on all of us to do the work, and to take advantage of the resources.”

Ownership and openness are at the heart of having uncomfortable but productive conversations at work about race and racism. And they need to happen. A 2020 Society for Human Resource Management survey of U.S. workers and human resource professionals found that 37% of both white and Black workers felt uncomfortable having discussions about racial issues at work.

The survey also showed that 45% of Black workers and 30% of white workers said their organizations discourage discussions on racism and social justice. And nearly half of the Black HR professionals surveyed said they “do not feel safe voicing their opinions about racial justice issues in the workplace.”

MIT Sloan lecturera social justice and inclusivity expert, recommends leaders make three social agreements to foster those conversations: listen to be changed, call in don’t call out, and question your first assumptions.

These agreements allow leaders to address things like race, gender, and “all of the ‘-isms,’” Lazu said, “and be able to take them on successfully and honestly, and actually get you that increased profitability and being able to enter new markets successfully, and all those stats that McKinsey and others have been telling us about.”

Here’s a closer look at those agreements.

Agree to listen to be changed

To help yourself listen, treat the development of this skill like learning a new stretch at the gym. When you first start out it will likely be uncomfortable, but you wouldn’t just stop and beat yourself up over an early failure. You’d take a deep breath and understand you are not going to be good at this on your first try. When you are ready to start, Lazu recommends what she calls “preparing to learn.” In this case, begin with educating yourself about the Black community and understanding the history of oppression and the history of the racial justice movement.

Preparing to learn “opens you up to learn the lessons the community will teach you once you start engaging with them,” Lazu said.

Remember as a leader to work on your ability to be OK with getting it wrong, and don’t feel that you’re going to lose your influence by having these uncomfortable conversations.

“Your job is to make sure your employees know and you even tell them: ‘Hey, if you think I'm messing up, maybe shoot me a chat in the Zoom, shoot me a text, maybe we can talk about things before and after meetings to make sure I'm showing up the right way,’” Lazu said. “You can keep the power dynamic you're comfortable with, but you can open yourself up to let people know ‘I'm willing to change.’”

Earlier this year Burke organized a HubSpot employee check-in to create a space to share how people were feeling about what was happening around the Black Lives Matter movement. It didn’t go as planned. Black employees felt like they were under a spotlight and being asked to share their feelings during a “raw, challenging moment in time,” Burke said.

“The intent did not equal the impact at that event,” Burke said. “It didn’t make anyone who was really suffering feel better.”

But the painful moment was also an opportunity to learn, Burke said, and it informed how the company changed its strategy for future employee check-ins. Now, they’re done on a smaller scale. A recent talk with LGBTQ employees concerned about the presidential election and the future of marriage equality was conducted in small groups, so no one felt on display.

“I think it’s a good example of something we didn’t do well enough at the start,” Burke said. “On this front everyone is waiting to do the perfect thing, and I actually think it’s far better to show progress versus perfection when it comes to challenging and sensitive events.”

Agree to call in, not call out

If leaders want to create a company culture where people are open to talking about and learning from prejudice or bias-related mistakes, they must establish a practice of calling in, not calling out.

“The idea of calling in is that you have empathy and respect for someone who may not understand they are currently supporting bias,” Lazu said. “You find a way of highlighting behavior without adding guilt and shame, which causes defensiveness.”

Burke said HubSpot takes a similar calling-in approach by encouraging its leadership and employees to have honest, open conversations about race, racism, and microaggressions.

“Let’s say you witness an indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination, for example someone interrupting a female colleague, or discounting the experience or voice of a Black employee in the room,” Burke said. “It's really hard to be like ‘Hey, I think you're a little racist.’ That's a hard conversation to have. So we talked about tactics for shutting down microaggressions in a thoughtful yet impactful way.”

One way to do this is by asking “What do you mean by that?” Burke said. It’s not calling someone out, but instead giving someone the chance to drive the conversation, and find out what the other person is trying to communicate or do.

Agree to question your first assumption

Assume the best in everyone, and give what Lazu called “generosity of interpretation.”

This summer, Wells Fargo CEO Charles Scharf stated during a Zoom meeting and in a company-wide memo that there were not enough qualified Black candidates applying for open positions. The comments drew criticism inside and out of Wells Fargo, prompting an apology from the executive.

“So we could all pile on him — maybe deservingly so — or we could say ‘Well what do you mean by that?’” said Lazu, who wrote her own response to the comments in an American Banker column.

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Not finding qualified candidates doesn’t mean Scharf thinks Black people in general aren’t qualified, it means he doesn’t know qualified Black people, and perhaps Wells Fargo — or any company facing a similar problem — isn’t attractive to qualified Black candidates, Lazu said. 

But to be able to have an open conversation like this and voice a diversity issue requires a suspension of first judgements. Because what you’re seeing and hearing may not be the whole story.

“I’m going to assume the best in you. I’m not going to assume my first thought,” Lazu said. “You’ll treat people differently, and then they have no choice but to treat you differently.”

Remember, improvement requires practice

Lazu acknowledged the difficulty in making these three social agreements, but said the effort will be rewarded.

“You have to practice being uncomfortable, that’s what makes it hard, because to get better at it, you have to do it,” Lazu said.

Recognize that this is a learning experience, and there are going to be growing pains. Find ways to allow discomfort. Consider bringing in a facilitator. Set ground rules for an honest conversation. Find a shared ideology.

“If you believe that we’re all the same and you just don’t understand why we can’t seem to have a level playing field, then that’s a shared ideology,” Lazu said. “From there, if you’re willing to be uncomfortable, you can learn a hell of a lot.”

For more info Meredith Somers News Writer (617) 715-4216