Race in the Workplace
How to Create an Inclusive Environment
Phillip M. Perry / June 2021
Systemic racism has become a topic of primary interest around the nation. As headlines blare news about racial disparities in the society at large, businesses everywhere are asking themselves an important question: What inequities exist in our own organization, and how can we rectify them?
“This is a good time to deal with racial equality in the workplace because recent news events have made the topic uppermost in our minds,” says David Campt, founder of The Dialogue Company, a diversity and inclusion consulting firm in Eden, N.C. “We’re seeing something that might be a real tipping point in the nation, and that will be talked about 30, 40 or 50 years from now. When something important is happening in society, we don’t want to let discomfort keep us from discussing what’s obviously on peoples’ minds.”
Good for Business
Reducing the business world’s racial disparities is a matter not only of social justice but also of profitability, says Campt. “One of the things we’ve learned over the years is that diversity within teams produces a diversity of thought that can lead to better outcomes if it is handled well.”
Organizations with good reputations can attract more top performers, and fair treatment can keep them from jumping ship. “People very often leave companies because they feel they are simply being tolerated rather than included,” says Bob Gregg, co-chair of the Employment Practice Law Group at Boardman and Clark LLC, Madison, Wis. “A toxic environment can lead to constant hiring and retraining of replacements for people who leave.”
Then there is the potential for litigation. “Discrimination or harassment in the workplace can spark lawsuits that result in money judgments not only against the company but also against individual supervisors,” says Yvette V. Gatling, a shareholder in the Tyson’s Corner, Va., office of San Francisco-based Littler, the world’s largest employment law practice representing management.
And litigation is indeed starting to pile up. “People are more prone than ever before to rush to a lawyer if they feel like their workplace is a hostile environment,” says James J. McDonald Jr., managing partner at the Irvine, Calif., office of Fisher & Phillips. “More companies are starting to be called out for being insensitive or not taking equality seriously.” The resulting media publicity, he adds, can be as damaging as the direct financial penalties. “Employers today have to be concerned about the costs of lawsuits in terms not only of money and time but also of reputation.”
In creating a workplace of inclusion, the first step is to realize that discrimination is generally unintentional. “The most important mental shift we can make is to reconceptualize the problem of racial bias,” says Campt. “Rather than a crime against the social contract done only by evil people, bias is more like a glitch in thinking that everybody is subject to. We are biased not because we are bad people but because our brains are inherently that way.”
That collective unconscious mindset sparks real world discriminatory acts. “Most people are not racists or bigots, but they can make judgments based on stereotypes they have learned from the surrounding culture,” says McDonald. “As a result, they make decisions based on race or other protected categories without even realizing it.” Such decisions can include hiring, mentoring, promoting and the assigning of work duties.
A business looking to upgrade its workplace environment needs to start by addressing any organizational disparities. And one way to do so is to talk about it. “It’s a good idea to have what some companies call a ‘town hall meeting’ to discuss the topic of race relations,” says Gatling. “During this meeting higher levels of management can discuss current events and company policies. For remote workers, the event may take place over the internet on Zoom or Webex.”
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The organization should present the meeting as a tool for improving operations—not just as a vehicle for paying lip service to equality. “Management needs to completely own the process,” says Dr. Kenneth Kaye, a Chicago-based workplace psychologist. “There should not be the slightest nod to any statement similar to, ‘Sorry about this. We have to check this box because some people have complained.’”
Instead, says Kaye, the person leading the meeting might explain its purpose in these terms: “We need to talk about how—not whether—we can become a comfortably diverse organization. We are going to be that way for three reasons. Number one, it’s the kind of organization or department that I want to lead. Number two, it’s the best way to be productive. And number three, it’s the law. Let’s start by discussing any of the ways we have failed up to the present time to be a group where racial differences have no effect on anyone’s collaboration, productivity or evaluation. And then we’ll talk about the obstacles and some ideas to fix that.’”
If a structured conversation is a good idea, or even a necessity, it’s also true that careful planning is required to pull it off. One size does not fit all. “Your business might benefit from a meeting to discuss race relations,” says McDonald. “But you have to know your workforce. Are people upset? Are they talking about racial matters to such an extent that you feel a meeting might be cathartic? Then I think having an open discussion and letting people be heard might be worthwhile. But you need someone to lead it who will require respect on the part of attendees. And bear in mind that in some cases a meeting might lead to more tension and make matters worse.”
Break the Ice
As the above comments suggest, it’s possible for a staff meeting to backfire. It’s for that very reason that many businesses will be fearful of taking the plunge. “Managers of any color may be uncomfortable talking about workplace race relations,” says Kaye. “And they may fear that employees who are also uncomfortable with the topic will wind up offending one another.”
Campt says management can help overcome the discomfort surrounding discussions about race—as well as set the right tone—by leading with a degree of vulnerability. “By owning up to bias and establishing a determination to work on it, the manager makes it much harder for people to say they are immune from it and much easier for everyone to discuss it.”
He suggests leading with some words like these:
“Bias is something we are all subject to. I am not a perfect person either. I am a human being subject to thoughts that are sometimes problematic.”
Still have cold feet? Sometimes obtaining professional help is wise. “Skill at this level of communication is not widespread,” says Campt. “A good diversity and inclusion professional can often provide conversational tools to help a culture navigate the topic. There is value in engaging people who know how to be facilitators around these issues, and who are not doing it for the first time.”
When an organization does undergo this shift in thinking, people can discuss workplace bias in a more enlightened way. “We can start to look at how pervasive bias against women and people of color—not just in our company, but in our society—might be affecting our business decisions,” says Campt. “And we can look in a different light at our recruitment practices, vendor choices and hiring and promotion decisions.”
Retool Business Systems
The forward-looking company will take steps to re-engineer any policies and practices riddled with hidden biases. “The most important thing for every business is to establish anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies,” says Gatling. “They should cover all aspects of employment including hiring, evaluations, promotions and raises.”
Written policies should also do the following:
Prohibit insensitive statements. “People need to understand they have a duty to avoid making racially charged jokes or comments,” says Gregg. “And if they see a coworker doing either, they must speak up and say, ‘Hey, look, that is not appropriate for our workplace.’”
Such language must be prohibited even if the individual using it belongs to a protected group. “Many people will use loaded terms among themselves, making jokes that would be highly offensive if done by someone else,” says Gregg. “People need to understand if it is not appropriate for one person, it is not appropriate for anyone.”
Outlaw bullying. “Courts have said repeatedly that bullying is the glide path to harassment under the law,” says Gregg. “While it may not at first mention race or sex, as bullying continues, people will start to pick up on the fact that it’s happening to individuals who belong to certain groups.”
Require reporting. Employees should understand that they are required to report anything they experience (or see) in the workplace that may relate to harassment or discrimination. “The reporting mechanism should include some individuals who are outside the victim’s chain of command because the one committing the discrimination or harassment may be that person’s supervisor,” says Gatling. “It’s also a good idea to provide for anonymous reporting by setting up a hotline.”
Require response to reports. “Ignoring a report of harassment or discrimination can put your business in legal jeopardy,” says Gatling. “You should do a thorough investigation, which means talking to every witness possible. Then you should take action on the results. You also should keep good documentation on how you investigated, and to get back to the victim to let him or her know what has transpired.”
Prohibit retaliation. “People need to know there will be no consequences if they come forward with a report about harassment or discrimination,” says Gatling. “While the law prohibits retaliation, it’s always helpful to remind people and supervisors of that fact and of your organization’s policy prohibiting it.”
Make sure everyone realizes the policies exist to ensure fairness and profitability. “Employees need to know that the purpose of good company policies is to have an effective workplace, not to simply comply with the law,” says Gregg. “The organization is paying attention to this topic because racial inequality and discrimination can harm the company.”
While having the right diversity and inclusion policies is vital, they also must be communicated adequately to the staff. Including them in the employee handbook and on the company intranet is a good start. In addition, employees should sign statements that they have read the policies as opposed to just receiving a gloss about them during orientation. “Very often in court cases, people will deny they ever saw their employer’s policies,” says Gregg.
Too, managers and supervisors need to buy in to the policies and understand how to implement them. And they need to set the right example, avoiding remarks about modern-day societal events that might on the surface seem innocent but that can spark misunderstandings. “Managers have to be careful not to say things in the workplace that subordinates might take as evidence of bias,” says McDonald. “Comments about contemporary politics and culture can be especially risky. What the manager feels is freedom of speech, an employee may take a different way.”
McDonald gives the example of a supervisor who says something like this: “The immigration laws are too lax, and I wish Trump would build that wall.” Making that statement in itself is not unlawful, says McDonald. However, the words might lead a Hispanic subordinate to feel the manager is biased against Hispanic people. If something negative should happen down the road to that employee, he might conclude it was the result of discrimination.
Managers and employees alike need to understand the harm that can be contained in unthoughtful comments. “Sometimes people will say hurtful things without realizing they are hurtful,” says Campt. “And then very often they feel that because they did not intend to hurt anyone, no one should feel that way. So, part of what can be inculcated in a culture is an awareness that both intent and impact matter. Embracing that fact can be a useful conflict resolution tool.”
Enlightened communications and respect toward others, combined with a carefully designed and implemented diversity and inclusion program, can obviate racial resentments and foster a more collegial atmosphere. The result can be more effective teamwork, a more efficient workplace and a more profitable business.
Phillip M. Perry is a full time freelance business writer with over 20 years of experience in the fields of workplace psychology, employment law and marketing. His byline has appeared over 3,000 times in a great variety of business publications.