February 26, 2021

How to Engage in Conversations about Race in the Workplace

Conversations about race can evoke strong emotions. But they can also help people to connect.

Together, we must explore lived experiences, understand the historic and current context of race, and encourage commitment to work towards a more fair and equitable society.

So, how should employers, HR teams, and people managers approach conversations about race? What are safe space conversations and how do you go about them? Keep reading for helpful tips and guidance.

Safe Spaces

You should conduct conversations about race in a safe space environment. Make sure all employees feel heard, validated and feel safe to respectfully express their experiences.

Black, Asian and ethnic minority team members should feel able to safely share lived experiences and world views. White team members should seek understanding and share their perspectives too.

The success of the conversations will depend on when and how they’re communicated. Employees should understand why the conversations are taking place, and how they fit into the organisational context, as well as the intended outcomes.

Hold conversations about emotional, sensitive or contentious issues in a way that allows for open sharing, open receiving, mutual understanding, acknowledgement and then, if appropriate, shared problem solving.

How do you Conduct a Safe Space Conversation?

You should set rules or agreements at the outset of the meeting to govern how it’s conducted and how all participants should act. Some key principles for safe space conversations are:

Always maintain confidentiality

While the content and themes can be shared outside of the meeting, agree that the discussions remain confidential and the comments and experiences will not be attributed to individuals.

Acknowledge different perspectives

Recognise that individual worldviews are shaped by the experiences of the individual, many of which are determined by their culture, race, gender, sexuality, country of birth, media they consume, among other things.

Acknowledge fear

It’s likely that some people in the conversation will worry about reactions, responses or reprisals, so it’s important that the communication and expression of views is done with compassion.

Acknowledge the feelings of others

Participants in the conversation will have different perspectives, but these should not be dismissed, diminished or explained away.

Acknowledge that our interpretation of the actions or words of others may not be correct

It’s important to clarify meaning with compassionate curiosity.

Acknowledge the likely discomfort felt by those involved

You should also communicate the importance of pushing through this discomfort, taking time to reflect on your discomfort and the learning that’s on the other side.

Suspend judgement

Don’t rush to give meaning to what is expressed and shared; rather seek clarification with curious compassion.

Exercise humility

Admit mistakes and accept that intent doesn’t always deliver the desired outcome. Reflect on the feedback and seek to understand how to align your outcome with your intent more closely next time.

Use ‘I’ statements to describe your experience

Speak from your perspective, own your thoughts and interpretations. Acknowledge that there will be different perspectives, and that these are also valid.

Accept that you have learning to do

There is always learning from listening to new perspectives; acknowledge that this is a journey for you.

Know when to pause, to reflect and learn

There are times when it’s good to pause for reflection and then come back to the conversation with a fresh and open perspective.

Seek shared meaning

Look for the areas where you agree and start the conversation there. This is especially powerful when seeking to agree solutions and jointly solve the problem.

Discussion Starters for Conversations on Race in the Workplace

Some questions that can help to shape and continue the race conversations in your organisation:

  • When did you first become aware of your race?
  • How has your racial identity affected your life experience so far?
  • How has it impacted your world view?
  • What about your experience as an employee of the organisation?
  • Are you aware of any experiences of racial discrimination in our organisation, either your own experiences or those of others?
  • Do you feel we do enough as an organisation to ensure equal opportunities for everyone?
  • Do you feel we do enough as an organisation to build a culture where everyone can come to work and be themselves?
  • What would you like to see us do more of to improve inclusion at our organisation?
  • What else would you like us to be aware of?

Conversations about race in the workplace demand an investment of time and resources from the organisation. It also requires time and emotional energy from your employees. It’s important to demonstrate this investment is respected, appreciated and will lead to tangible change, and that the organisation actively demonstrates its commitment to equality and proving good work and opportunity for all.

It’s vital that changes are made as a result of these conversations, developing the next stage in learning, growth and change. The goal is to progress towards an open and inclusive culture, where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

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About the author

Donna Chadbone

About the author

Donna Chadbone

Donna joined Moorepay in September 2008 and has worked with a range of clients from the engineering, aerospace, manufacturing, service, leisure, education, construction and care industries. During her career Donna has worked on an extensive range of generalist HR activities including recruitment and selection, performance management, disciplinaries, grievances, absence management and flexible working requests. As a field-based HR Consultant Donna provides specialist HR and Employment Law advice, consultancy, project delivery and training services to our clients. She primarily works with HR Managers, line managers and directors to support and guide them through HR best practice and employment law.

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