Race in American culture and politics is one of the most sensitive issues we talk about today. We hope conversations about race are always authentic attempts at open discussion – in the best case, we come closer to understanding each other and being able to work better together in the workplace.
But we’ve all seen the ways those conversations can detour into defensiveness, avoidance and misunderstanding. This leads to cultural resistance to change of any kind, whether you’re trying to change your workplace culture or society at large.
Uncomfortable, but essential
These difficult conversations may be uncomfortable, but they’re essential to creating a more inclusive and psychologically safe environment.
Often those who get most defensive already stand in a privileged position. They might believe that they are being judged or blamed for inequities, even if that’s not the case. Or they might feel that they do not benefit from diversity initiatives, believing it’s a zero-sum game that gives more to one group at the expense of another. This type of defensiveness is common but does not have to derail diversity initiatives.
HR executives can set the table before a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) initiative is even announced to employees. Doing the internal research and engagement ahead of crafting a specific plan will pay dividends down the road.
Here are four suggestions for starting that process:
Start at the top
Institute frank discussions coming from top leadership. This includes both interpersonal communications and organization-wide. As long as DEIB initiatives remain a document to read or a video training, employees can dismiss it as less important than their day-to-day worries.
Leaders must model inclusive behaviors in their day-to-day routine. For example, leaders can make sure there are open discussions about race-related events people are already talking about – focusing especially on their impacts on the employee experience – like the killing of George Floyd.
Continue the conversation
Continue conversations with team members, allowing employees to hear different perspectives and experiences. These aren’t always comfortable conversations to have, but very necessary. Team meetings should be called in real time, allowing live feedback when microaggressions are experienced by team members.
There is a difficult balance to maintain in these meetings – you do not want to sweep team members’ experiences under the rug, but you also don’t want a conversation to break down into calling individuals out at a meeting. Managers can try pulling an employee aside and politely expressing the impact a situation could have. It might sound like this: “Jim, I know you didn’t mean anything negative by what you just said, but sometimes others might interpret that comment in a way that makes them feel separated from the group or alienated. Just something to think about for next time.”
Hold DEIB learning sessions that offer both education and dialogue about important topics. These could be moderated by either a trained internal or external DEIB expert, or another HR professional.
The goal of the facilitator is to aid the discussion, keep the group on track (because these things can quickly go off the rails), and provide education. Ideally these discussions have a group representative of the entire organization – balancing across departments, gender, ethnicity, ability and sexual orientation, to name just a few. They are small-group discussions about real-world situations.
Topics could include how different views on DEIB show up in the workplace, or on-the-ground experiences that might provide a different experience to others. You want differing perspectives to be aired so everyone feels like the discussion was useful and authentic.
Build ‘common belonging’
Talk to those in privileged positions and see if “acknowledgment without blame” is possible. Those who have benefited from historic advantages can gain a greater connection to DEIB initiatives if they acknowledge the privilege, show sympathy toward those who don’t have the privilege, and see the value in bringing those who are historically disadvantaged into the “common belonging” shared at the company. Yes, this can be done without the guilt of personal blame.
Ultimately, making your organization more diverse, equitable and inclusive is not something that can be trained. It comes from real culture change, which is hard, incremental and comes with practice.
Here are four things you can do today to encourage your organization to change:
- Build the muscle for diversity rather than approaching the problem as “fixing” a gap. Genuine conversations and building a shared sense of belonging doesn’t happen with a snap of the fingers – it’s a long-term cultural goal that comes with practice.
- Ask your candidates of color how they want to be treated in the interview process, and use those learnings. Some examples of lessons learned I’ve seen in the past: Blind resume reviewing (to avoid unconscious bias against ethnic names); clear standards for each job role to avoid relying on “gut” or “fit” decisions by interviewers; drafting job description language that is inclusive and behavioral-based, avoiding gender-coded language.
- Scale personal conversations up, even in larger companies. You can encourage this by purposely creating a culture of honest, real-time feedback, and even providing talking points and guidelines for those conversations.
- Be intentional about what leaders you tap and promote. Are those leaders understanding how to increase belonging, or are they open to learning how? Are they modeling inclusive behavior, like taking aside an individual who’s quiet in meetings and offering to get feedback in a one-to-one setting?