3 things employers must do to address racism at work

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Revolutionary change is needed when it comes to talking about racial issues in the workplace, says one of the top workplace leaders in the nation.

Although 70% of HR professionals say that discussions of race are appropriate at work, 38% of all workers, and 37% of Black and white workers alike, don’t feel comfortable doing so, according to a new report from Society for Human Resource Management.

This discrepancy is indicative of long-held societal views of what is and isn’t appropriate to talk about in the workplace, says Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO at SHRM.

“We were taught not to have certain conversations at work, period. That is a part of the socialization specifically in America. We are now turning that on its head, and that change doesn't come easy. It's counterintuitive to how we've been taught to act and what to discuss at work. It’s revolutionary,” he says.

Nearly 50% of Black HR professionals say that discrimination based on race or ethnicity exists in their workplace, according to the report, which says that addressing issues in the workplace begins with having conversations about race. Yet 33% of all American workers say that their workplace discourages discussion of racial issues. Among Black workers, 45% say that their workplace dissuades conversations about race, while 30% of white workers say the same.

“These conversations can be difficult and challenging, but if we don't address them conversations are going to happen — and they aren’t going to be in the manner that an employer would want them to be in,” says Amber Clayton, knowledge center director at Society for Human Resource Management. “It's really important for HR professionals to be proactive and to have these conversations at work.”

The report offers three practices for organizations to facilitate discussions of race in the workplace, with the goal of beginning the process of making the workplace more inclusive.

Listen without comparing or contrasting
When a person is describing an experience of racism, listeners tend to be defensive or attempt to find parallels in their own lives, the report says. This tendency, known as conflation, is a common mistake. Instead, it is better to simply listen to the person’s story without attempting to insert oneself into it. Company leaders, HR professionals and workers throughout an organization must prioritize listening, the report asserts.
Promote discussion, not debate
Employers should emphasize that conversations about racial issues are discussions, not forums for argument, the report says. To that end, companies should establish rules to ensure that conversations don’t devolve into debate or disagreement. Listening to different perspectives should be prioritized.
Set goals and be open to feedback
Conversations about racial issues should be treated like discussions of job performance, with a focus on areas of improvement rather than fault, the report says. Organizations should set a zero-tolerance policy for racism, and gather feedback to gauge progress toward that goal.