Discussing Systemic Racism in the Workplace

Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Posted Sep 21, 2020

In the midst of COVID-19, the United States continues to face yet another pandemic, this one centered around racism. While everyone has the power to bring this topic to light, business leaders in particular play a critical role in encouraging a culture of inclusion and unity because of their influence and ability to affect change. 

Systemic racism is by no means an easy topic to address, but now is the time to take that leap and start this dialogue in the workplace. Don’t let the fear of saying the wrong thing lead to avoidance. It’s natural to feel nervous about a topic that carries such a heavy weight, but that Is even more reason to lead with courage. 

How can these workplace conversations steer clear of political debates and actually be effective? Consider these five things before starting a dialogue at work: 

It’s OK to be uncomfortable 
The reality is that the most effective, long-term changes don’t come from your comfort zone. Uncomfortable conversations create a starting point for a place of growth. You don’t need to have all of the answers when starting up a discussion around racism. Instead, simply be willing to facilitate the conversation and learn from the discussions taking place to foster a more inclusive workplace. 

Leave politics at the front door 
Racism is not a political problem; it’s a human one. Leave political beliefs, and political differences, at the front door to have an honest conversation of why certain people aren’t getting the same rights as others. When you have these conversations in a politics-free zone, you create an environment for effective listening and understanding, which is ultimately what’s needed to combat systemic racism in the United States.  

Education should never slow down  
Just because most of us are out of school doesn’t mean that we’ve stopped learning. Now, our lessons come from our own experiences as well as from the perspectives of others. As a business leader, you can’t wait for someone to educate you on the history leading up to the Black Lives Matter movement, you have to invest the time to seek out content and perspectives on your own. Dive into resources such as Netflix’s 13th, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad, and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. When done proactively, education and awareness can translate into better-informed actions moving forward. 

Take time to listen 
Active listening is the ability to focus completely on what the speaker is saying and understanding their message, which is easier said than done. Beyond the typical verbal cues, do your best to read between the lines and hear what isn’t being said. Another crucial aspect of active listening is to avoid dismissing an employee’s feelings when they share their views, even if you don’t fully comprehend the message. For example, say, “Tell me more; I want to understand.” Not, “You shouldn’t feel that way.” To further increase mutual understanding, try paraphrasing their words and feelings back to them. Conversations don’t always have to lead to concrete solutions right away, but you want your employees to feel seen, heard, and understood. 

Make this a long-term conversation 
If you’re viewing dialogue around systemic racism as a one-and-done conversation, you need to reconsider your overall objective. As a leader, make it your renewed goal to normalize difficult conversations in the workplace by creating an ongoing dialogue that flows in all directions. At the same time, the best way to foster long-term change is to keep these conversations productive and respectful. Give your employees a safe environment to discuss important matters, but play the moderator role to ensure there is a mutual understanding across all parties. 

The racism pandemic we’re currently living in opens the door to starting a dialogue in the workplace and effecting real change.  By normalizing conversations in the workplace about the systemic problem of racial inequality in America, business leaders can create progress both in the workplace and far beyond the walls of the office. Everyone involved in these open dialogues can use what they learn from these conversations to start open conversations at home, spreading awareness and educating their families and peers.