Workplace Race Issues Can Be Solved IF We Address Them Openly and Honestly

After the recent protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, St. Louis Regional Chamber CEO Joe Reagan spoke out about how racial issues are routinely ignored in the workplace.

“We have to have the conversation,” he said. “First and foremost, it has to be that very difficult conversation about race.”

Avoiding such conversations seems safer, especially at work, where many people are uncomfortable discussing race. If no one says anything, no one gets offended (or sued). While this tactic lets people remain inside their comfort zones, issues of race don’t disappear when ignored. Healthy companies must address them.

Bias still exists in the workplace

When a group of professors performed a study to understand the job market for recent college graduates in 2014, they submitted 9,400 fake résumés online. After sending four résumés per job, each with varying information regarding name, gender, and race, they found that applicants with typical “black” names were about 14 percent less likely to be interviewed — despite having the same qualifications.

Other research has also shown that “white” names receive more interest from employers: “Greg” is about 50 percent more likely to get a callback than “Jamal.”

The question isn’t whether bias affects hiring, rather, it’s when and how this occurs.

Unconscious bias plays a role in each of us, regardless of our social identity. We’ve all been fed stories that ultimately shaped our perceptions of “others” inside and outside of our sub-group. These views, right or wrong, affect decisions about who should be hired and what we expect leadership to look like.

The first step in combating bias is acknowledging its existence. Only then can we determine how bias affects our selection of job candidates and how current employees are treated. It’s the ongoing willingness to discuss race that allows us to further our analyses of how our biases impact the workplace.

Discussing race is risky

In 2013, The Home Depot tweeted a picture depicting two drummers who were black and another dressed as a monkey. The caption read, “Which drummer is not like the others?”

Before long, the company was being called insensitive and racist on social media.

Similarly, when people wade into the territory of discussing race, even when trying to be humorous, there is a fear of saying the “wrong” thing and getting slammed for it. That’s the risk that many white people feel they are taking by talking about race.

When black people express opinions about racial issues, they risk being labeled as “angry” black people. Those labels can impair workplace dynamics and morale.

It’s no wonder diversity initiatives sometimes never get off the ground.

Intent does not equal impact

The key to making a diversity initiative work is feedback. For many companies, diversity is just a regulatory box to check rather than a goal.

To improve the workplace climate for employees of color and to intentionally engage white employees in the process, companies should ask all employees about the impact of their efforts. Even anonymous feedback from those who are uncomfortable broadcasting it can help leaders decide whether initiatives are actually promoting inclusion.

Talking about race often involves conflict, which should not be viewed as negative but rather as simply differing perspectives.

To light the way, leaders should state openly that when conflicts arise, it is important to remain open to multiple viewpoints in order to work through them rather than avoid the conflict. Modeling deep listening and conflict without denigration would be a powerful step that doesn’t happen often in the business world.

Making initiatives an ongoing process

It’s also important to remember that one person doesn’t represent an entire group. Ideas should be explored without pigeonholing people based on their social identities.

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Leaving the traditional office space for discussions can encourage openness. Some examples include lunch-and-learns, book groups, museum exhibits, or any activity in the community that centers on the topic of race. One company gave its employees an afternoon off to go see the movie Selma together so they could later discuss it as a group.

The most important aspect of diversity initiatives is that they remain ongoing — stop-and-go and standalone efforts fizzle quickly and often do more harm than good when people are left feeling even more frustrated.

According to Deborah Dagit, former chief diversity officer at Merck & Co., good intentions aren’t enough; companies need to “create and sustain innovative workplace solutions that ensure inclusion for all to achieve a fully engaged and customer-focused workforce.”

Diversity improves performance

Diversity initiatives not only improve workplace environments, but they can also improve company performance. A study by McKinsey & Company found that companies in the top quartile of ethnic and racial diversity are 35 percent more likely to receive above-average financial returns.

We shouldn’t focus on diversity just to make money, but increased profitability is another example of how diverse companies are healthier. When doctors identify illnesses, they don’t ignore the problem and hope it goes away — a cure is immediately sought, even if it causes the patient discomfort.

The same concept applies to discussing race to create a healthy, diverse workplace: Racial issues at work can only be resolved if we confront them directly and honestly.

Kira Hudson Banks

Dr. Kira Hudson Banks is an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Saint Louis University. Her research examines the experience of discrimination, its impact on mental health, and intergroup relations. She has published in American Psychological Association journals such as American Psychologist, Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, and Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. Her consulting firm, The Mouse and the Elephant, is committed to developing customized curriculum to meet companies’ long-term needs. She received her BA from Mount Holyoke College, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, and her MA and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.