Developing a conversation with your employees about racial equality
In this very special interview dedicated to having the conversation about racial equality & diversity in the workplace, we will be interviewing the president and CEO of Elevate Business Development Group, Ellen Engel and Delvon Survine, on the subject of opening up the dialogue of racial equality in the workplace.
Kyle: So, Delvon & Ellen. Thank you so much for being here! With everything going on in the world right now, we thought it was important to have a conversation with you guys about how to have aconversation about diversity in the workplace today. Before we start, please introduce yourselves and tell everyone what you do here at Elevate Business Development Group. Delvon, please start things off…
Delvon: Hi, I am Delvon Survine. I am Chief Executive Officer of Elevate Business Development Group.
Kyle: Alright… and Ellen, please introduce yourself….
Ellen: Hi. My name is Ellen Engel and I am the president of Elevate Business Development Group.
Kyle: Alright, well thank you for coming together to have this conversation about diversity and work relations in the workplace. I have several questions to ask each of you. Ellen, the first question will go to you followed by Delvon with the same question. So, Ellen, the first question is:
“How is the conversation about race more complicated in the workplace now than it was 20 years ago?”
Ellen: I think it is easier and I also think it is harder. It’s easier because people are more aware now. With the 24-hour news and social media, everything is more readily available so things we see now are more graphic and easier to see what is happening. It think it is really harder, again because social media and the news can be misinterpreted.
It’s also harder too because people are a lot more uncomfortable--they are afraid to offend somebody now more so than 20 years ago and communication is very difficult. You can no longer ignore structural racism in the workplace and in the world. If you think about the leadership 20 years ago there were, a lot less democratic and autocratic blend in the workforce than there is now. In many cases the boss set the tone and no one questioned it, but today we are more blended in our leadership approach and employees also have leadership roles. Our societies are more diverse now - between work, friends, families - we have more exposure to differences in the workforce than we had before. So again, harder and easier.
Delvon: I think in some respects, the fear of reprisal that may have happened 20 years ago, has been taken away and people feel more embolden to speak out and speak up on issues of diversity, inclusion and racial equity than they have in the past. - where there may have been a fear in the past that if I speak up on something, I may lose my job or be demoted or be moved, that fear has now morphed into anger in some respects, rage in some respects and we start to see this throughout the country with the protests and things like that…but on a more micro-level – (with the protests being on a macro level) – you start to see on a more micro-level, people are more emboldened to say, “This situation that I am dealing with at work, or in my work environment, has been intolerable and I need to speak up about it and they feel more emboldened to do that now than maybe in the past. Some of this has to do with some legal – as it relates to title 7 of the EOC and all of the updates to that, some of it has to do with just being – more representational in the workforce. But often what we see is a positive thing - people are realizing what may have been intolerable 10 years or 20 years ago, is now something that I can speak up about. Which is overall positive. Regardless of whether that is a racial issue, whether its an LBGTQ issue, or whether its a gender bias issue – people are feeling like - hey…I can really speak up about it, and say something about it and really see action based on my words.
“Do you believe the pandemic has played a role with racial tension, and if so, how?”
Ellen: Definitely. It definitely has played a big role because the pandemic brings out inequalities that already exist in society. People lost their jobs, healthcare, they are tense and they are getting the virus. We have to educate and acknowledge the inequities that people in the workplace and that we face in the world and the pandemic brings it to the forefront.
As white people we have to acknowledge our white privilege and then in a credible and in a very informed way, we have to use it to influence powers that be to make changes. And I think a lot of people are thinking about their white privilege now and I think a lot of people want to do something, they just do not know how to and they are afraid to.
Delvon: I believe that the pandemic has played a role with racial tension due to the disproportionate impact on communities of color as it relates to; not just getting the virus, but also the economic impact that the pandemic has – such as closing businesses, layoffs and things like that - has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color.
This, on top of seeing in the news the police interactions with communities of color, was a tipping point, so to speak…The pandemic was just kindda the slow burn before the spark, so to speak.
“How do you respectfully open the conversation about race and be sensitive to the experiences of your employees?”
Ellen: It is very difficult because in the past a lot of us were afraid to bring this up…but leadership needs to make an authentic decision to do things about racial inequity and injustice. They have to be able to communicate with their staff and so often we just ignore these kind of problems so we have to speak with our employees openly and feel and take responsibility.
We do not do anything thinking everything is just going to go away. We have to educate not only ourselves but our employees…especially those of us that are white – we have not known everything that is going on…things go easier for us in life… so we have to make sure our white employees are educated about this.
One of our clients has done surveys on their employees and then they addressed issues that have come out in those surveys into conversations. They had an outline of what people were concerned about and what everyone wanted to talk about and developed them into conversations and then leadership took control of what was important to people so people did not have to bring it up themselves. Leadership brought it up in a controlled way and everyone was able to communicate…that went very well within their organization.
You have to be ready to have the tough and uncomfortable conversations and if leadership just ignores them, nothing is going to get resolved and there will be tensions and hard feelings that are just not going to get resolved in the workplace without some guidance by leadership. I think one of the big things is that all the employees need to start asking what it they would like to see so the leaders can support what they’d like to see happen within their organization.
Delvon: I am going to talk for a few minutes about this particular subject. One of the things that we have to do in regards to opening the conversation about race and being sensitive to the experience of our employees is understanding that this is a conversation that can no longer be ignored. It can no longer be pushed to the side. We have to engage and we have to have these conversations because these are a part of the undercurrent of the workforce that is just right below the surface.
When one employee says something to another there is often- depending on the nature and context of the conversation - one of them may be perceiving some kind of racial undertone to the conversation. And, we cannot ignore that anymore, we can not play like that is not happening. So, let me layout a few bullet points, if I could of how I think that conversation should go:
- One, it has to be reinforcing the purpose of why we need to have this conversation to begin with. And it can’t ust simply be “I need to vent about a racial issue, so let me use this my time at work to do so.” There should be some sort of facilitation on the part of leadership that encourages - at the right times and when time is permitting - to have these conversations around race. Now, we also know that work comes first at work, so that has to be put into it as well, but it cannot be ignored and there has to be time given to have these types of conversations.
- We need to set agreements in advance to encourage dialogue about mutual respect - deep listening. These are some of the hallmarks of good dialogues and we need to be setting these things in advance before the conversation even starts.
- We want to encourage participants to be relaxed, comfortable with one and other and be ready to express their beliefs and their differences.
- We want to recognize that sometimes people have good intentions that may misspeak, and they may make statements that can hurt or offend – but what do they mean?? We have to look at and we have to weigh intent over impact. We have to understand what the person is intending to say even if their impact may have landed wrong and maybe was a little bit hurtful.
- We have to be mindful that our minority staff members may feel emotional right now - there may be some heightened tension. We cannot take that for anger. We have to take that for what it may be, but not assume there is anger. We also have to understand that on the part of our white employees that there is trepidation there – that there is fear there – that there may be a little bit of “I want to speak, but I am afraid to speak because I do not want to be labeled”. That is also a real genuine fear and we have to give rise to that and understand that. So the conversation needs to happen on both sides – we need to understand and we need to say the same thing to the other parties – we all need to understand and develop a dialogue.
- Leadership has to establish strategies for everyone to participate. Everyone should be in the room having these conversations when there is something that has to do with a racial equity issue. And we need to tackle it as a group, instead of one-on-one.
- We also need to give breathers and breaks if that is needed. Let's take a time out…let's take 2 minutes and come back and hit it again…but all these conversations, especially because it is happening around the work environment – the leaders need to remind themselves that these conversations need to be tied back into the work - they need to be tied back into the environment. It cannot be that you are trying to solve all the woes of the community when you can only really tackle what is happening in your little department.
“Since most people are still working from home, how do you suggest companies address the issues concerning equality in their own organization?”
Ellen: Ok, so For Elevate Business Development Group there is no difference since we all work from home and our trainers are located all over the world so remoteness is not an impediment…in fact, remoteness sometimes makes it a little easier to have difficult conversations.
We may be more intentional in our effort to have conversations because people are not coming together organically. We have to make plans for everybody to get together – people usually know what the conversation is going to be about, there is an agenda, there is a list of what we are talking about so it makes it a little easier for people to plan ahead and think about what it is they want to communicate with everybody. We always try to make time for our employees to interact and communicate even though we are not in the same building or in the same office and we are remote.
Staying at home provides a tremendous opportunity to organize a large staff at one time and check in on everyone to see how they are doing and if they are OK. During the pandemic, during these protests – I think it is a really good idea for staff members to get together and share how they are doing and if they are OK.
One of our clients gets their 600+ staff together on Zoom every morning to make sure everybody is OK and to make sure that people don’t have issues that they have to talk about and if they do, they can talk about it and the CEO of the company always attends, as well as the employees and that is something that never normally happens. Some of these employees would have never ever met the CEO, so this is a good opportunity to be in a remote type situation. People tend to communicate more in a pandemic and they are more deliberate on how conversations occur and they make sure they use the technology tools that are available to the benefit of all.
As I was saying The CEO of the company that I was just talking to was on the call showing concern and this is the first time some of the employees ever had contact with a “higher up” and if the leadership is sincere in what they have to say and involved in the conversations everybody in the all become more aware and engaged and get along a lot better as far as knowing what everyone else is thinking.
I do not know if any of you saw on TV but there was that commercial about privilege and they have everyone standing in the line and they have an announcer say “OK if your parents work nights and weekends - step back”, “if you went to college - step forward”, “If you have ever been bullied or made fun of - Step back” - and it is a forwards backwards based on questions that are asked on privileged classes and social inequalities and it is very powerful and these are some of the exercises we can put together and we can do with our staff when everyone is remote – there are a lot of things we can do in person and also remotely – so we do not want to say we can not do anything.
Delvon - One of the things we need to be mindful of is what does this look like, what does this feel like - to the people that I have impact on, to the people that work within my sphere of influence. Let’s say I was a leader of an organization and I decided that I would like to delay this conversation… I intend to have this conversation, but I would like to wait until we are all back in the office together to have the conversation. What would this look like- what would it feel like to all of the members of the staff? Would they feel like they are delaying this conversation, trying to avoid this conversation, trying to duck the problems at hand? And, so it behooves leadership to look at the situation and seize the opportunity and seize the moment and say although this may not be ideal, I need to speak about what is going on in the work environment today.
We also have to be mindful of – because of the nature of work and most employees are working from home - that they (your employees) are inundated with the news of the day more so much more now than they ever would be. They are impacted more so than they ever would be. Now they cannot avoid it. Work is no longer the deterrent or the detractor that it normally is throughout the day now all the issues that we are facing in society I am dealing with and I am frustrated about because I am stuck at home – on top of everything else. That is a real thing that people are dealing with… I suggest that they take the opportunity to address the issue head-on via some type of platforms like Zoom or any other type of platform to speak to staff and have the opportunity …using those guide rules that I laid out in the previous question would be a good place to start.
Achieving Racial Equity in the Workplace will be one of the most important issues that companies will tackle in the coming decade. To move toward racial equity, organizational culture must change from traditional, often failed, diversity training and take a holistic approach that prioritizes the human experience at all levels. People need the ability to work with the dignity of having their histories acknowledged and their life experience valued. Only then will companies be able to recruit and retain the thriving, diverse workforce that leaders and customers want — and need — in the next decade, and beyond. In this very important and inspiring three-part series, we will guide your through the topics or understanding cultural differences, understanding unconscious biases and having the conversation with your employees so your organization can achieve racial equity in today’s workplace.
For more information on how to bring this training to your organization:
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This article was written by Tara Scheing of Elevate Business Development Group. Tara has been managing the digital marketing and writing articles on professional development & business training with Elevate BDG since it’s inception and lives in Southern Oregon with her husband and two young sons. You can connect with her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/tara-scheing-28973655/ or contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elevate Business Development Group is a workforce management, training, and consulting company serving government agencies (federal, state, local), non-profits, and private industry. Our programs make staff, managers, and executives more effective contributors to the workplace by assessing knowledge gaps and crafting tailored solutions. Elevate BDG offers on-site and virtual training, coaching, mentoring, and creative off-site training offerings in 200+ topics. Our “off-the-shelf” solutions can be tailored to meet your organization’s needs or our instructional designers can create a program from scratch to meet your exact specifications.