Wondering how best to approach conversations about race in your organisation? If your organisation is thinking about having conversations about race, here are some things to consider beforehand.
Set clear goals for the conversation.
Formal discussions about racial justice are a lot more likely to be productive if they have a clearly defined purpose. The goal might be, for example, to invite employees to share their personal experiences and anecdotes about how bias manifests at their organisation, or to identify hiring procedures and practices that perpetuate bias. Whatever the goal, the discussion should explicitly centre on the racial justice issues within the organisation. Setting a goal before scheduling a formal conversation will also help identify the most suitable forum for the discourse.
Think about the scale and format of the conversation.
While intuitively it might make sense for companies that operate internationally to err on the side of inclusivity by creating a global meeting, when it comes to issues of race and racial inequalities many regional and national differences need to be taken into account. Similarly, consider whether hosting a large forum or townhall online is a suitable format to deeply engage employees.
Take, for example, how recently around 9,000 LinkedIn employees joined virtually to connect, listen and learn. Intending to create a safe space for all, the company offered the ability to ask questions anonymously. Unfortunately, that also made it possible for a relatively small number of employees to add offensive comments anonymously. (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/yesterdays-town-hall-ryan-roslansky-1f/)
Be prepared to acknowledge the organisation’s track record.
Many organizations are far from where they need to be on diversity and inclusion. The leaders should be upfront about falling short, take responsibility for those failings, and commit to approaching things differently going forward. You want to tell people that there’s going to be reinforced support for new policies and procedures that address racial injustice and racism within the organisation. And, depending on your track record, you probably want to acknowledge that it’s well past time to be doing something, but that at least you’re here now.
Consider how it won’t fall on Black employees to lead the conversation.
It will be grossly unfair to expect Black employees who are already coping with the effects of racism and inequality in their daily lives, to simultaneously take the lead on the discussion about how to make the organisation more diverse, and to figure out what company programs would be beneficial to implement. If you can, and we don’t see why not, we definitely recommend seeking the assistance of professionals who are specifically qualified in addressing institutional problems and are compensated for their work.
Consider how you will encourage ongoing conversations.
A flurry of meetings followed by dead silence isn’t going to solve the problems with systemic inequalities at any organisation. You could even argue that it will exacerbate the situation. So before, or while, having the conversations, leaders should be looking at how to create an environment where employees are engaged in ongoing dialogues with one another, both formally and informally, about the problems they encounter at work and ways that the company can change to help more people from a range of backgrounds get hired and thrive.
Some examples in practice include having a series of conversations once a month for the next 12 months, so it starts to feel like part of your company culture and establishing a Diversity and inclusion council to provide colleagues with a platform to share their experiences and continue the conversation in a safe space.
Consider how you will take the conversation beyond the formal sessions.
It’s essential to find ways to balance the focus on formal meetings with the availability of informal communication channels. Consider how you will provide opportunities for colleagues to network with each other, to foster relationships and raise awareness of key issues which can include race among many others. When colleagues talk to one another regularly – not just about race – they’re a lot more likely to be open and receptive with dialogues about inequality.
Acknowledge there is a world beyond the company.
Before initiating conversations about race, it is important to acknowledge global events as they affect workers at the organisation. Don’t expect people to leave what’s happening in the world behind at home, especially if it’s a societal event that might impact them or their colleagues. Informal check-in sessions can provide those affected with a safe space to share their feelings and receive support privately before engaging with them in public conversations.
Consider inviting a guest speaker or an external moderator to facilitate the sessions.
Having an expert on diversity and inclusion, or race relations to either moderate the discussion or to create context can enable a more meaningful dialogue. It also means that these sessions become an opportunity to gather rich insights into the experiences and barriers facing different racial groups. The external facilitator can help with identifying solutions as well as ensure action plans can be discussed and agreed to be taken forward. The last thing you want to do is have a talk, but no action.