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How to have conversations on race with African American and Black employees

Inclusion and Diversity|Integrated Wellbeing
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By Kezia Charles, FSA | June 10, 2020

Leaders and colleagues alike can initiate meaningful workplace conversations about race.

Right now, the African American and Black community is hurting. People were already struggling with the disproportionate loss of loved ones due to COVID-19, a painful reminder of racial health disparities. The community is also facing unprecedented job loss – the unemployment rate for African American and Black households increased during March 2020 from 6.7% to 16.7%.1 Then, within a week, they were confronted with several public instances of racial discrimination, including a white woman calling the police on an African American man who simply asked her to follow the Central Park rules of having a dog on a leash, and the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers.

This was months after two other events where African Americans were killed. Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down in the street by white civilians while out for a jog, and Breonna Taylor was killed in her own home after the police went to the wrong address.

African American and Black employees are not okay

Many leaders feel ill-prepared to have meaningful conversations at work about racism and discrimination. They don’t know how to talk about race and may have actively avoided it. Yet data show that avoiding these conversations heightens employees’ feelings of alienation and lowers employee engagement. According to a study by the Center for Talent Innovation, Black employees who feel like they cannot talk about racial bias at work are 13 times more likely to be disengaged than those who feel they can talk about racial bias.

In this blog, I offer six suggestions for leaders to have meaningful conversations about race with African American and Black employees in the workplace.

  1. 01

    Do research and relevant trainings

    Colleagues who are interested in learning more about the African American and Black experience, including the country’s history of racism and discrimination, should spend time researching relevant topics. For example, the National Museum for African American History and Culture has a portal, Talking About Race. Additionally, allies should look for opportunities to do appropriate trainings on topics, such as how to identify personal biases and how to have courageous conversations.

  2. 02

    Create a safe environment

    A key component of a supportive work environment is psychological safety. Employees will be more willing to participate in challenging conversations around race if the workplace culture provides settings where they can speak openly without fear of backlash or other forms of negative repercussions (see point four below). Employees who feel supported at work are also more likely to be engaged.2

  3. 03

    Start the conversation

    Leaders should not be so worried about saying the wrong thing that they never engage with African American and Black employees. It is okay to be uncomfortable. According to the Center for Talent Innovation’s study, Being Black in Corporate America, Black men are two-and-a-half times more likely to be satisfied with their job and intend to stay if the company has moderated forums to discuss race.

  4. 04

    Actively listen

    Leaders and colleagues who want to serve as allies need to give their African American and Black peers the space to share their thoughts and emotions without interruption. African Americans and Black people have been dealing with race issues for most of their lives. The issues are not new to them and allies can learn a lot from hearing about their experiences.

  5. 05

    Resist the temptation to defend yourself

    Many people feel personally attacked when topics such as racism and white privilege are broached. There is a natural tendency to indicate that you are not racist, and while that may be true, the purpose of the conversation is to better understand how the Black person feels. Defensiveness could limit the openness of the conversation and curtail progress toward eradicating racism.

  6. 06

    Ask questions

    Be authentic and ask questions with genuine curiosity. People enjoy having conversations about their heritage and their cultures. Employees who feel more connected at work also feel a higher level of dignity, which is an important driver in employee wellbeing and productivity and the company’s overall business performance.3

According to Willis Towers Watson’s 2019 Global Benefits Attitude Study, African American employees are less likely than their white peers to feel dignity at work. They are less likely to feel that they can be authentic at work, that they are connected to others and that they can handle workplace stress.

Leaders can enhance the dignity that African American and Black employees feel at work, improve engagement, cultivate a culture of belonging and reduce the chance of departure by having open and honest conversations about race in the workplace.

There is something each and every one of us can do to eradicate racism. Let’s get to work.

Footnotes

1 Department of Labor April 2020 report

2 Willis Towers Watson’s 2019 Global Benefits Attitude Survey, Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace

3 Willis Towers Watson’s 2019 Global Benefits Attitude Survey, Culture and Dignity

Author

Director, Retirement
North America Multicultural Inclusion Network, co-lead

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