As organizations attempt to commit, some for the first time, to improving their policies and practices around race and racism, many are experiencing some common pitfalls. The positive intention of building more cultural inclusion is sometimes followed by problematic action. For example, in the hope of providing space for their Black, Indigenous, and other employees of color to share their stories, some leaders are asking these employees to sit on a panel to shed light on their experiences of everyday racism in the workplace.
The leadership of the organizations who invite these panelists to speak have good intentions – to uncover some real and difficult information in order to educate the rest of the organization. Starting the conversation is a good idea, but we have to consider the impact of these kinds of panels and ask: “At whose expense are white people learning?” We must consider the consequences for the panelists. They are being asked to share difficult and often painful experiences. What might that mean for them not only during the experience, but also after the forum, and for the rest of their careers within the organization?
Still other organizations are not even talking about race. Many Black, Indigenous, and other employees of color are dealing with deep emotions brought on by recent events in the U.S., and are receiving no response, let alone support, from the leadership in their workplaces. And those organizations that are taking it on, are often proceeding in ways that may be doing more harm than good.
Here are five myths that I have found to be most common among organizational leadership that could be hindering these conversations.
MYTH #1: If no one’s talking about race, you don’t have a problem
Let’s face it, if you’re not talking about race and racism in your organization right now, you’re behind the curve. Many organizations that have never before attempted to engage in challenging conversations about race are realizing that ignoring the problem will not solve it. We must be brave, and we must engage. These conversations, when facilitated well, can foster understanding, build relationships, and increase loyalty, which serves all of your organization members and your bottom line.
MYTH #2: Being nice to everyone is enough
In my own national dissertation research, I found that most leaders believe they are prepared to build cultural inclusion. But when those same leaders were asked whether or not they engaged in specific culturally inclusive practices, overwhelmingly, the response was: no. We want to believe we are inclusive, but it turns out, just being nice to everyone is not enough.
We live in a more segregated society today than we did during the Civil Rights era (based on housing statistics, among other indicators); we are struggling to build relationships across social differences. And it is these authentic cross-racial relationships that challenge bias and stereotypes the most. We need training to understand our differences and how to effectively engage in an increasingly multicultural world.
MYTH #3: Being non-racist is enough
Many people consider themselves to be non-racist: believing their lives are not affected by race one way or another; they don’t see race as an issue of concern. So-called “colorblindness” will not solve the problem of racism; in fact, it is a form of racism. [For more info on this concept, click here]. In order to counter the ubiquitous messages we receive that are most often based on stereotypes, we must practice being anti-racist and gently challenge the racist comments, stereotypes, and behaviors we all witness throughout our day.
MYTH #4: It’s enough to have an HR Department take complaints
Some organizations have a Human Resources department that receives objections about fellow employees’ behavior. Sometimes they are referred to as ombuds offices or anti-discrimination offices. This, too, is a good start, but it is important to evaluate the objection process in an organization.
Ideally, the employee would be able to speak to an independent consultant rather than a co-worker, to minimize any fear of repercussions. Consider the location where the employee goes to file the objection: is it near their office or workspace? Is it in the same building where other organization members might see them enter or exit? In the time of COVID, filing an objection online with an independent consultant via video chat from home is a great option. Finally, the outside consultant must be given the opportunity to anonymously report back to the leadership of the organization, who should be made accountable for acting upon objectors’ concerns.
MYTH #5: “I’ll deal with Racism in my organization after COVID”
Structural racism exists in our society and in our organizations whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. As a percentage of the population, for example, Black, Indigenous, and other employees of color are more likely to be working on the front lines and so are more likely than white people to contract the virus. COVID is exacerbating systems of racism, and it is essential that we urgently deal with the problem, at both the individual and organizational levels. We need to make sure every member of our organizations feel like they belong.
Finally, if your organization has an HR Department, please check in with them. These days they are being asked to take on the burden and responsibility of dealing with issues and incidents of racism, COVID, on top of all of the issues they usually handle. They are becoming more and more overworked. Be sure they are getting the down-time they need, and that they are able to engage in self-care practices. If they are not, consider offering some organization-wide stress management, like a mindfulness training. This will minimize burnout and increase organizational loyalty and commitment.
Consider the long-term effects of engaging in these conversations. It is critically important, especially now, to act. But please act responsibly. And if you’re not sure how to do so, please ask any of us experienced consultants – we can offer guidance, facilitation, and feedback. And please make sure you’re not asking members of marginalized groups to do an expose as a teaching tool for others!