How to Talk About Racial Injustice at the Workplace

Talking about racial injustice at work can be difficult. Here are tips on how leaders can start the conversation (and keep it going).

'People will remember how companies treated them, and whether they felt supported by their leaders during this watershed moment.'

Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

Following the killing of George Floyd in May and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor earlier this spring, many companies have issued statements condemning racial inequality and expressing solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

Employees do notice public statements, but speaking directly to staff — whether through virtual town halls, company-wide memos, and/or videos from executives — helps reinforce these messages and show concern specifically for Black employees.

Kay Fabella, a diversity and inclusion consultant for remote teams, says, there’s no one way for companies to discuss racial inequality and take action against it.

“It’s not about ‘getting it right’ — the longer you go without making a statement, the more damaging your perceived lack of leadership is.”

“It’s not about ‘getting it right’ — the longer you go without making a statement, the more damaging your perceived lack of leadership is,” she explains.

Here are some strategies for getting started.

Put Black employees’ needs first

Supporting Black employees should come before anti-racism training and everything else.

“The greatest concern is ensuring that Black employees have a safe space when they come to work,” says Demetria Miles-McDonald, the founder and CEO of the consulting firm Decide Diversity.

Miles-McDonald encourages employers to be flexible in accommodating requests from Black employees, whether they need mental health days to work through their emotions or express some other need.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to providing support,” she says. “It must be customized and what the person needs at the time.”

Fabella suggests redistributing the workload to give Black employees space to grieve if they need it.

Be specific

“This is not a time for vague or generic language,” Fabella says. “The most powerful statements I’ve seen from companies have centered the narrative around Black employees, named the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and openly acknowledged systemic racism.”

Leaders of color can share how racism has impacted them personally to make these issues more personal.

“Stories have the power to make non-Black colleagues and leaders feel more proximity to a situation, because racism stops being abstract when it happens to someone they know,” Fabella says.

Remember that the inequality experienced by other marginalized groups isn’t necessarily the same as what Black people face.

“For non-Black POC like myself, who are often tasked with explaining our own experiences with discrimination, it’s important for us to de-center our exclusion stories to express solidarity with our Black colleagues,” Fabella says.

“It’s also valuable to acknowledge that racism exists on a spectrum, and confront how our own minority communities have benefitted from and contributed to anti-Black racism.”

She also recommends sharing anti-racism training from credible sources like the Racial Equity Institute.

Avoid centering whiteness

White leaders may want to acknowledge their privilege, but they should not center whiteness in the discussion.

“White leaders have a critical role in creating containers for courageous conversations about race within the company,” Fabella says.

“They can start with saying, ‘I’m sorry’ — acknowledging that they are aware that they benefit from white privilege. ‘I’m listening’ — that they are there to listen to and amplify the voices of their Black colleagues. And ‘I’m learning’ — that they are willing to educate themselves on how to dismantle their own biases and prejudices.”

Focus on your company values

Some leaders are wary of speaking up because they don’t want to get political or don’t think these messages align with the company mission. Ebonye points out that racial inequality is a human rights issue, not a political one.

“I understand that you think it doesn’t line up with your mission but you should be focused on your values,” she says. “Does it line up with your values? Do you value inclusion?”

Keep the conversation going

Cultural change doesn’t happen overnight, so after the news cycle has shifted to other issues, don’t let these important discussions fade out.

Cultural change doesn’t happen overnight, so after the news cycle has shifted to other issues, don’t let these important discussions fade out. 

“You have to actually commit to the change,” says Ebonye Gussine Wilkins, CEO of Inclusive Media Solutions, LLC.

Announcing that you plan to hire more Black employees benefits no one if your company culture doesn’t support those employees and make them feel heard. They’ll ultimately leave if they don’t feel supported.

Gussine Wilkins says it’s common for companies to create task forces to address diversity and inclusion, but that often places the burden on a person of color to do the work, usually for no extra pay. “It is on top of their additional work duties,” she adds.

“White employees or white-adjacent employees need to recognize that they actually have to change their behaviors, change the way they speak to people, and learn to respect other people’s boundaries,” Gussine Wilkins says.

Feeling guilt over past behavior or current circumstances, many white employees have reached out to their Black coworkers in these past few weeks.

“If you’ve never talked to a person the entire time you’ve worked there, it comes off as insincere,” she adds.

Attitudes toward Black employees now and in the future speak volumes about your company values.

“People will remember how companies treated them, and whether they felt supported by their leaders during this watershed moment,” Fabella says. “The organizations that will thrive after this crisis are the ones that take an intersectional approach to diversity, equity and inclusion, fostering a culture of belonging where both current and future talent can thrive.”

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