For many people, the hot summer days conjure memories of last year's race-based shootings: the police shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA (July 5, 2016), Philando Castile in St. Paul, MN (July 6, 2017), and followed by the payback shootings of five Dallas police officers. With each reminder of outrage in the wider community, racial tensions inevitably rekindle in the workplace.

More than 275 corporate executives underscored the importance of this issue with their recent commitment to CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion™, an initiative led by PwC and nine other companies, to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Their approach encourages more open discussion about race and gender in the workplace. While leaders of small business might not have the resources of Fortune 1000 companies, there is plenty they can do. Easing Racial Tensions at Work, a new report from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), shows how individual leaders and companies of all sizes can respond to race-based tensions at work--and have a positive effect for their employees and their business.

Let's start by acknowledging a basic fact: Talking about race at work remains difficult. Even when headlines trigger a tide of anxiety, fear, anger and despair, conversations about race tend to remain taboo at work.

Yet silence comes at a high cost. CTI data found that black employees who say it is never acceptable at their companies to speak about experiences of racial bias are nearly three times as likely as those who say it is acceptable to intend to leave within a year. They're also 13 times as likely to be disengaged. Conversely, the data shows that having open conversations about race at work is an important first step to helping employees process the social bias and discrimination they may experience in their personal lives.

Leaders have a unique opportunity to break the silence. Under the right circumstances, many survey respondents say they would feel comfortable discussing race relations at work under certain circumstances, regardless of their racial background. Here are three ways to create a safe space for productive conversations:

Lay the ground rules for honest conversations on race: Leaders can have meaningful, respectful discussions of racial tensions in society with their employees. For example, two weeks after the shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Texas, Tim Ryan, US Chairman of PwC, initiated a series of discussions about race relations with all levels of staff in offices across the country. He simply wanted to create a space where colleagues could share what was on their mind and be assured that other colleagues would listen. After his kickoff, PwC started a program called "Color Brave." Leaders were given a discussion guide to start a dialogue with their teams. Conversational ground rules included: listen, share and be respectful; don't debate or take sides; don't try to convince people or brainstorm solutions. "It was about creating a culture where you can express what really matters to you, because that doesn't go away when you set foot in the office," explains Minority Initiatives and Talent Management Leader Elena Richards. The conversations will be an ongoing part of PwC's inclusion strategy as outside events continue to demand them.

Bring in outsiders. External speakers can have dual value: expertise and openness. Sometimes, an outsider is freer to share and surface frank stories--to get "raw and real." That's why New York Life hosted "Coming Together: A Conversation on Race Relations" with the Perception Institute (PI), a consortium specializing in the study of racial anxiety and implicit bias. Through the use of PI's research, New York Life was able to provide the science behind racial anxiety and implicit bias, and create an environment where employees felt comfortable in sharing their personal stories about unwarranted police encounters or incidents of unconscious racial bias. This facilitated group discussion about race provided credible tools to continue the conversation, and created a memorable, learning experience for employees at New York Life. "Several participants said how proud they are to work for New York Life and to have had the opportunity to attend such a meaningful event," says Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Kathleen Navarro.

Enable one-on-one conversations. Often, it takes one relationship at a time to improve race relations. That's why a one-on-one conversation was CTI survey-takers' top choice for settings under which they might feel comfortable discussing race. To better facilitate these one-on-one conversations, companies can offer a toolkit to help leaders shift into listening mode, instead of trying to solve problems. "Without help, it can be hard to see an option besides avoidance or accusation," says a senior vice president at a finance company.

"For most adult citizens, the single most likely site of integration -- of genuine social interaction across racial lines -- is the workplace," employment legal scholar Cynthia Estlund wrote in Working Together: How Workplace Bonds Strengthen a Diverse Democracy. It's important for leaders everywhere to create an environment in which every employee feels comfortable; in small companies, it's absolutely crucial that every employee feel able to contribute fully.

Let's start the conversation.

Published on: Aug 4, 2017