How to Talk About Race in the Workplace

Strategies for facilitating difficult conversations.

Posted Nov 29, 2020

Source: Pexels/Fauxels

To promote diversity, an organization should intentionally employ a workforce comprised of individuals of varying gender, religion, race, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education, and other characteristics. To maximize an organization's success and competitiveness, it is essential that diversity be embraced and appreciated. A recent study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that increasing the diversity of teams leads to 19 percent higher revenue due to innovation. Additionally, diverse teams are 87 percent better decision-makers than individuals, and provide 35 percent better performance compared to their competitors.

Nonetheless, diversity is so much more than a buzzword for offices to toss around. It’s a mindset and an awareness that can differentiate a toxic, discriminatory environment from an inclusive, safe, and thriving one. If your organization is struggling in this department, it may be time to be courageous and implement initiatives to boost workplace culture. 

Due to recent civil unrest (e.g., the death of George Floyd), many organizations may be looking for ways to foster more frequent discussions about race. However, facilitating these conversations may be challenging and may often involve tension, conflict, and fear, all of which contribute to discomfort. All of these factors may mitigate the probability of continuing this dialogue. Hence, the following are suggestions for facilitating productive conversations on race in the workplace.

1. Build Relationships

When talking about race, those involved will bring their fears, negative past experiences, and resistance. This first step is essential, yet can be the most challenging. Being genuine and vulnerable can help build relationships with participants and encourage them to be more open.

However, many members may be initially hesitant to verbally engage in discussions about sensitive topics like this. Therefore, using anonymous platforms (such as Poll Everywhere) to allow members to respond and engage in uncomfortable dialogue may be useful. According to research, using an anonymous platform can promote more insightful reflection and meaningful member interactions compared to non-anonymous methods.

2. Go Deeper

Participants may enter these conversations at different places on a continuum of understanding and, as a result, will have varying attitudes about engaging in this work. Therefore, challenging participants to “go deeper” may help plant a seed in their mind that can potentially lead to new ways of thinking about race and social justice issues.

To accomplish this goal, it may be beneficial to have participants split up into small groups and provide limited time to answer tough questions around race (e.g., What fears do you have related to discussing oppression, discrimination, or race?). This pushes them to engage in more in-depth dialogue that can be helpful to promote improved awareness around their thoughts, intentions, and behaviors related to this topic.

There is literature to support that participating in small group discussions can increase our exposure to diversity and broaden our perspectives. Even when group members share similar cultural identities, the diversity of experience and opinion within a group can provide room for alternative ideas to be presented and opinions to be challenged.

3. Understand that Learning Occurs Differently, at Different Times, for Different People

Occasionally, every conversation about race may not end productively. If negative responses occur, it is important to not take them personally. Participants will bring different attitudes, beliefs, biases, and experiences around race relations. As a facilitator, one may feel defensive when others make you the object of their anger rather than looking inward. Specifically, topics centering on white privilege and systemic oppression may spark up emotions of guilt, rage, and frustration from participants and the facilitator. However, by displaying empathy and authentically seeking to better understand the viewpoints of others, you may promote more respective and productive conversations.

Bottom Line

Sharing your personal experiences, challenging audience members to “go deeper,” using anonymous platforms, and allowing space for small group dialogue may assist with making your conversations unique and meaningful. Remember, talking about race should be an ongoing effort and should be deliberate and intentional. Everyone who participates in these discussions may bring different viewpoints and beliefs. However, with time, participants may increase their comfort, obtain useful tools, and develop helpful strategies to promote team cohesion, inclusivity, productivity, and more effective workplaces.

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Copyright 2020 Ryan C. Warner, Ph.D., CRC


Hollins, C. D., & Govan, I. M. (2015). Diversity, equity, and inclusion: strategies for facilitating conversations on race. Rowman & Littlefield.

Lorenzo, R., N. Voigt, M. Tsusaka, M. Krentz, K. Abouzahr (2018). How diverse leadership teams boost innovation, Boston Consulting Group.

Murdoch, M., Simon, A. B., Polusny, M. A., Bangerter, A. K., Grill, J. P., Noorbaloochi, S., & Partin, M. R. (2014). Impact of different privacy conditions and incentives on survey response rate, participant representativeness, and disclosure of sensitive information: a randomized controlled trial. BMC medical research methodology, 14, 90.