How do I start a conversation around race in the workplace?

Steve Bridger

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Community Manager

23 Jun, 2020 15:59

I'd be very interested to hear from any Community members who may feel able to share there experience.

Especially if colleagues and leaders are not comfortable talking about it!

The first step is accepting that talking about race in the workplace is new for most; this means there will be discomfort, mistakes will be made and false starts will happen. Organisations need to understand that this is part of the process and they will need to sit in the discomfort as they learn how to have conversations about race with their people.

However, to be inclusive it must involve everyone in the conversation and that means all races - whether it is expressing support, seeking understanding, asking questions or sharing their own experience and learnings about race, the conversation needs to include everyone. The timing and the facilitation of this is crucial as the conversation must remain safe, open and focus on how to move forward together.

  • I guess that my initial thoughts would be to wonder who is asking and for what purpose.
    I believe the purpose in addition to other factors such as the organisation's structure and culture and wider context will inform on how to start that conversation and will also ultimately help to define or discover (sometimes through the process itself) what is the conversation really about.
    The latter would answer the question: "So what?"
  • In reply to Jean-Charles:

    As a black woman in a predominantly white work environment, over the past few weeks since the Black Lives Matter campaign has gained momentum, in my workplace conversation about race is rife - whether actively kickstarted by me, leaders, allies or whether a situation has enabled a non-BAME colleague to broach the subject of which they were previously fearful. I’ve found most non-BAME people genuinely keen to be educated and to ask how they can educate themselves. So I agree that culture, structure and context are integral to constructive discussion about race and it is up to those of us who are passionate about making a difference to create the safe environment to enable and promote these discussions
  • Steve Bridger

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    Community Manager

    24 Jun, 2020 10:08

    In reply to Mandy Tennant:

    Thank you for such a positive post, .
  • I'm on a few other general chat forums and obviously this is the main topic currently. It may be the demographics who use them (one of the forums is pretty notorious for being a bit of a snake pit to be fair) but when someone does seem to be genuinely wanting to learn more the response is "its not their/our job to suggest reading material/educate you" and similar responses. As an example one of the recent threads was something like "white people will never experience racism" and while looking at it as a collective, I do agree generally white people don't experience it, and would STRONGLY disagree with anyone who said racism towards white people has the same impact as it does towards BAME individuals, but individuals certainly can experience it. When a few people did share their experience in response to the thread title, which clearly was inviting such discussion, they were were completely drowned out with "no thats not racism thats just people being horrible, white people can never experience it" etc and it went round in circles and got pretty nasty.

    I think for conversations to happen it needs to almost be done in a 'safe' zone? So listening all round, no shouting down and belittling *anyones* experiences, understanding that yes, generally white privilege does absolutely exist, but also understanding that on an *individual* level, the single, white mother of 4 children, one who has a severe disability, on minimum wage living hand to mouth may not feel particularly privileged due to their whiteness - from what I've seen this is where it can often get nasty when the conversation turns to this.

    As HR I'm used to having and facilitating difficult conversations and never shy away from them, but without my HR hat on I'd feel uncomfortable, possibly because all I seem to see is conversation often being completely shut down (from all sides) when it reaches certain points.

    Perhaps for discussion to happen there need to be rules about respecting others views and experiences (as long as they aren't blatantly offensive), but then that seems unnatural and forced?

    Rambling post!
  • I'm delighted to hear that Mandy's experience has been so positive. I think Samantha's comments, though, illustrate something that I have been mulling over when it comes to employers that wish, institutionally, to challenge racism proactively and have an official or psuedo-official dialogue about the issue.

    I think employers do need to communicate some basic axioms that they consider to be fundamental to the dialogue and concerning which they accept no challenge. Examples for a UK organization might include:

    1. Racism against BAME people exists.
    2. Racism has been institutionalized by the law and by the majority white culture.
    3. Racism has placed BAME people and communities at a disadvantage in almost every field of endeavour.
    4. White privilege exists, but does not invalidate experiences of abuse, disadvantage and discrimination experienced by people of white European heritage.
    5. The racism experienced by, in particular, people of black African heritage is qualitatively and quantitatively worse that experienced by other groups and, in particular, that experienced by people of white European heritage.
    5. To acknowledge, confront, oppose and overcome racism is a worthy aspiration that will benefit everyone.

    I'm not saying an employer would necessarily want to adopt all of these or only these as axioms of the dialogue, but I think it is reasonable to establish axioms both with a view to setting the organization's position out clearly and with a view to establishing what - within the context of an internal dialogue about race - is reasonable to discuss and what, importantly, isn't.
  • Hi there, my questiion is not in relation to the below but a race issue i have experience recently. My manager referenced one of her black staff members as an excitable monkey which i am deeply offended by. I am of mixed origin and her reference just made me extremely uncomfortable and quite upset and let down following the incident, the member of staff who she called an excitable monkey has worked under her for years and received x2 recent promotions from her so she completely controls him. A few weeks ago she also reference the same member pf staff by saying she wanted to be as black as him when putting on fake tan which again i was deeply offended by. I feel like im alone with my issue as the senior team scratch eachothers back which means i cannot speak to anyone, i previously had a staff incident last year and had an investigation take place but the manager in question protected this member of staff as she favours him and the investigation was dropped as no one in HR followed it up, with this outcome i can no way have faith in my HR department to do the right thing and am fearful that if i talk i will lose my job, or be pushed out. Ive been with the company for nearly 8 years and never had an issue against myself so to me im not one who wants to rock the boat but im this instance i feel this staff member (my manager) needs to be held accountable and appropriate action taken
  • In reply to Paul:

    Yes, that would make me pretty uncomfortable, too. The fact that you are also of mixed heritage will obviously make it far more unsettling for you.

    The question you need to ask, though, is what you want to achieve. You seem to think that, if you complain, nothing will happen and you will be targeted or pushed out, but is that necessarily a bad thing? You would be in a strong position to claim CD on the grounds of racial discrimination and, if you were prepared to take this all the way with a good solicitor, could not only obtain a substantial settlement but also send a loud and expensive message to the company that this behaviour is going to hurt them in the long run.

    Of course, this is a stressful and risky path to follow. Depending on your industry, it could result in you never finding work there again if they close ranks against you.

    Or you could cut your losses and just resign and find another job. Tricky in the current economy, unless you are particularly specialised, but probably better for your soul than doing nothing.

    Still you could do slightly more than nothing: stay in place, keep you head down and make a lot of careful notes. When you or some other victim of this behaviour is ready to take a stand, those notes will be very useful evidence. How comfortable would you feel raising this subject with the person you refer to? You seem to think that he is "completely controlled" but you may have no idea how much he is seething inside and how positively he would respond to discovering that someone else is as outraged as he is.

    Had you considered seeking management approval for an internal support group for BAME employees to have a safe space to share their experiences and help one another? At a time of #BlackLivesMatter, they could feel obliged to concede to such a group being formed for fear of being perceived as racist. And, of course, if you ask it and they refuse, well... keep those notes.
  • In reply to Paul:

    Paul, I'm white and I would be offended if a manager said this about a black colleague. In some instances racism is seemingly small, less than overt instances which can be hard to challenge.

    The use of the word monkey oversteps the mark for me and is clearly not acceptable. I imagine the female manager might not realise that and having some coaching and training could help, especially if they seem to control rather than coach or manage people.

    Taking this to HR is a big step, it can be a fearful thing to do however it's all in the approach for me. If you approach it calmy, factually and focus on how this makes you and maybe others feel and avoid confrontation, this could be dealt with easily.

    If your HR team is professional, caring and sensitive this can be an uncomfortable situation but it need not end badly. Good luck with making a decision and keeping yourself and your colleague in as good a place as possible in challenging circumstances.
  • In reply to Sharon:

    As Paul is posting on this forum and talking about his own manager, there's a good chance the perpetrator here is a HR professional. In which case, I suspect Paul has little hope of getting anywhere by raising this internally

    Perhaps another route might be reporting the manager to the CIPD if they are a member. They clearly do not represent the behaviour we expect within the profession and I wonder if the CIPD would investigate and take action.

    I certainly do not want people who think it is okay to describe someone who is black as a monkey to be part of my professional body and I am sure many here would feel the same.

    I think Robey's advice is also very good. I hope Paul can find a way out of this situation and address the issues within his current organisation.
  • In reply to Lesley:

    Good point. There could be a more senior, supportive HR person in the team who could help perhaps? If this is the HRD then there's a problem.

    Noting down instances and preparing for a potential grievance and dismissal is a good option although this can be very draining on top of managing in the interim.

    I'd want Paul to get as much support as possible before deciding to do that.

    Hopefully Paul, you have a coach or external mentor who can support you.
  • My own personal experience is that I have recently been dismissed for raising the lack of diversity or Even a policy in place. I was the retail operations manager and am studying level 5 cipd and currently looking at diversity in the work place. We are a small company (200 employees) and do not have any internal hr support, currently outsourced. I raised the issue against supporting a campaign , ‘bakers against racism’ when we are a totally all white company and are jumping on the bandwagon to look like an inclusive company, that it was an act of tokenism And just an opportunity to appear to be supportive, when we should be Looking at our own internal issues and understand why we have no BAME employees at all. I was told that this would be an opportunity to educate myself and that they were going to support it by donating £250.. 7 days later I was instantly dismissed, without a hearing or an opportunity to defend myself and told I did not culturally fit the company. I am 3 months shy of 2 years service and believe I have been unfairly dismissed. I am white but have a mixed race daughter who has faced constant racism, as have I.
  • In reply to Ingrid:

    Ingrid, thanks for sharing your personal experience. I hope you are getting the support you need to as you face this dismissal experience you are going through. You can't face times like that alone.

    I have similarly felt quite tetchy about bandwagons and tokenism for example for me it was about doing Black History Month and not doing anything else during the year. Then I shared this with one of my network, who is black, and she got me to think a little differently.

    Please take care of yourself and get that support.
  • I've been asked to hold conversations about race and BLM with some of our teams. I'm not sure how to approach this, structure it and what issues to take into consideration?
    As it will be virtually, I'm a bit concerned about how to best manage the conflict as described above and how to ensure it goes smoothly.
    It would be a hour long team meeting so what should I cover and consider within that time frame?
    I am white so part of me wondered if I should involve a black person (internally or externally) in the delivery,who has lived experience, then I wondered if I should do it myself (as requested) because we all need to take responsibility don't we?
    I would appreciate ideas, support and suggestions!
  • In reply to Kirsteen:

    Hi Kirsteen

    In response to your post I realised that I could almost copy and paste my first response posted to this thread on 24 June 2020. This centers crucially around the questions "Who is asking and for what purpose?". This could be a good start to help you with your "brief" and would provide some useful grounds for the transparency that will help you (re?) build trust with your audience.

    I note that you mentioned an hour long team meeting and you also used the plural form when writing "hold conversations". I wonder if the aspiration is a one off event or an ongoing journey. I am also reminded that the concept of "conversation" may sometime be seen as more than the words which are said, heard or interpreted but also the body language and actions through which we impact on one another over time.

    Your query suggests that you, or your organisation, may not be clear as to whether or not there is actually anything specific to talk about (blind spot(s)?) when it comes to race or BLM. There might be celebrations and not just injustices calling for remedies. You may wish to explore if some of the known "issues" in other industries could also be found in your organisation and an example would be the data that you may have available such as the ones used in the NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard (www.england.nhs.uk/.../). For instance, are BAME staff in your organisation less likely to be promoted or be part of the senior management team or more likely to enter a formal disciplinary process? Of course the lived experiences would also be useful and the use of both qualitative and quantitative data may not only help you to establish if there are any issues but also possibly assist you to manage progress and accountability towards better working lives and better work not just for BAME staff but for all.

    Finally your questions in respect to you being white sound legitimate to me and I would advise you to cautiously follow that path of querying as to whether or not the colour of your skin matters to what you wish to say and the impact you wish to have on your audience. It is one of the exceptional sets of circumstances when these questions can indeed be relevant. Unless you wish to have more control over its delivery the "lived experience" could be shared by a member of your audience for instance.

    Good luck