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Learn and Listen: Race and Equality in the Workplace

Two business people talking at a table in a restaurant.

​Discussions of race and equality, sparked by the recent protests over police brutality against black men and women, are likely to arise in the workplace. What do you do, as a manager or human resources professional, if they occur on company time? Facilitate them, or quell them to avoid conflict?

There's no one-size-fits-all way to handle these sensitive workplace conversations or related actions. The response will vary according to an organization's size, geographic location and mission; organizational culture; diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts; and other factors. The protests are a piece of a larger discussion about race and equality.

Employee handbooks generally address issues that may arise. For instance, if an employee calls in sick and the employer later discovers the employee attended a protest, there could be repercussions as outlined in company rules on taking leave. And if workers' discussions become harassing, that, too, will be addressed in the handbook's policies on employee interactions.

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Overcoming Workplace Bias

Amber Clayton, SHRM-SCP, director of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) HR Knowledge Center, said the center has received calls asking about, for example, whether managers need to act if an employee gets arrested at a protest, how to facilitate DEI training and address racial tension, and how to respond to someone allegedly making racist remarks in the workplace.

HR practitioners have to walk a fine line between making sure employees follow the employer's rules and listening to what employees are saying to understand the conflict or concern and see if there's a resolution.

Julia Rodriguez, SHRM-CP, is an HR manager focused on DEI efforts and programming at a philanthropic organization that has a global reach, and she serves as a remote HR professional for several nonprofit organizations with different cultures, missions and sizes. Part of her job is to talk to project leaders about HR issues they may have.

Her advice to employers has been that they can't control what employees do on their personal time. Also, she said, employers should remind employees that they don't represent the organization for which they work when they are speaking out, either on social media, in public, on apparel messaging or in other public ways.

But she's also counseled project leaders to listen to employees to determine the best way to handle specific situations. Sometimes that may mean providing resources where employees can find information on a topic or participate in discussions, as HR practitioners might do regarding COVID-19.

"Data suggest HR leaders continue to find new ways to allow employees room for expression of values while still ensuring alignment to organizational culture," said Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, chief knowledge officer at SHRM. "It is a very fine line, but the organizations that do it best have HR professionals and people managers who provide a forum for open, diverse thought while reinforcing cultural norms of the enterprise.  

"Admittedly, just over one out of every five HR professionals indicate cultural authenticity as a business is a source of difficulty when managing others," Alonso added, citing It's the Manager (Gallup Press, 2019) by Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup.

Company Statements

Some companies have tried to be proactive and make public statements on race and equality. Some were successful. Some were not.  

It's easy to see how such messages could fall flat, despite employers' best intentions, said Tommy Taylor, CEO of the United Way of the Cape Fear Area (UWCFA) in Wilmington, N.C.

"I'm a white male, and there are a lot of things we haven't experienced," he said. "If I were to even say, 'I understand,' that could be a major mistake. It's difficult to navigate for people right now."

Taylor also understands that a diverse workforce can indicate an organization's commitment to being reflective of the community it serves. Many people want actions, not just words. And he struggles with this at the UWCFA. The majority of job applicants, he says, are white women. His staff of seven is all white, even though Wilmington is 18 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic or Latino. Fortunately, he said, the UWCFA's mission—to work "with our community to leverage resources and improve the lives of local people"—and culture make it receptive to fostering meaningful conversations.

Taylor has been looking at his recruiting process to determine how he can attract more diverse applicants. He's sought advice from board members and partner agencies. This is part of a larger lesson: Managers should educate themselves on the issues related to the protests and listen to what employees have to say.

Learning and Listening

Rodriguez shared that she heard loud and clear from project leaders that staff would like Juneteenth off as a day of action. Leadership acted swiftly to encourage staff to take the day as an organizational day off not charged to their leave time. "I think it goes back to being open and willing to hear from your staff about what they need, what would be most meaningful to them and being flexible where appropriate."

Stephanie Creary, assistant professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, is an identity and diversity scholar and a field researcher. She says the talks about issues of race and equality have been going on for a long time.

"Now it's different," she said. "Now we see white Americans, white CEOs saying, 'We need to do something.' " But many white CEOs who have not taken an active role in this conversation "may not know what to do next," she explained.

"What I'm learning by talking to companies in the last few weeks … is they're trying to figure out what to do next. … It's a question of helping them to understand what needs to happen next." 

Creary recently authored an article, "How to Begin Talking About Race in the Workplace," that can help leaders and managers figure out how to proceed. It's important that middle managers, who can implement any changes leadership deems appropriate with their teams, are involved and enabled in the process, she added.


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