How to engage your organisation in conversations about race

In the second of our 'let's talk about race' series, Aggie Mutuma, from Mahogany Inclusion Partners, shares more on how to have positive conversations about race

As a society, families, teams and organisations, we have never spoken about race with the same depth, honesty, reflection and frequency that we have over the last six months.

You don’t have to go far to come across an article, an advert, a post or a documentary about racial disparities, the various views people have, and the action that the Government, organisations, and individuals are planning to tackle this long-standing issue.

Dismissing race through fear or denial

In this backdrop, it can seem odd that many organisations are yet to engage in conversations about race with their people. The reasons for this are plentiful and include fear, discomfort, not knowing where to start.

Many organisational leadership teams feel that there is no issue in their organisation and that they are an inclusive, equal opportunities employer. Whatever the reason, the impact is being felt by many Black, and people of colour employees. They feel ignored as if they do not matter and, above all, hurt by their employers’ silence.

Furthermore, employees who have different protected characteristics are watching and feeling as though their employers’ silence on race issues means that they would be equally unsupportive on matters that affect them.

A blaring silence

All employees are noticing the silence, although they may not be directly impacted by race issues they want to work in an organisation with a conscious, and that does the right thing. As the conversation about race continues in society, while their organisations remain silent, they are questioning their organisation’s stance and intent on issues of injustice and asking if their organisation is indeed one that seeks to do the right thing.

Regardless of ethnicity, all employees are watching and hoping that their organisations will speak up and speak out on this important matter of race equality.

So what can you do if your organisation is yet to start the conversations about race? While we would prefer our organisations to lead this conversation, this doesn’t have to be the case. There are some brilliant examples of employees instigating the discussion with their leadership teams and in their organisations. This takes some bravery and considered thought, and when handled correctly; this can open up very fruitful conversations, leading to positive action and strategies towards equity in your organisations.

Positive steps

There are three key steps to take to support you in achieving positive conversations about race and positive outcomes. The following steps have proved to be helpful:

  1. Assume good intent but lack of knowledge. It is helpful for you to assume that your leadership teams have good intentions and do not yet understand the impact of external and internal events on your experience as an employee. This mindset will help you as you start to plan your conversations, as you begin to engage with your leadership teams and should the conversations not play out in the way you had hoped.
  • Garner some support. A collective approach is always more compelling than a lone voice. Where employees have successfully started the conversations with their leadership teams, they have presented a united voice. Start by having discussions on a one-on-one basis, ask your colleagues how they feel and seek their support. A great idea is to approach colleagues who have been vocal about their desire to talk about race; this includes people of colour and white allies too.
  • Be clear on your intention in having the conversations. Having clarity on your end goal before you begin will help determine your approach and help you have a clear message for your leadership teams. The common outcomes tend to be a desire to have open conversations, share experiences, highlight issues that leadership may not be aware of, and work together to address any concerns. Having clear outcomes for the talks at the outset can also help to alleviate any fears and discomfort that your leadership team may have in starting the conversation about race in the organisation.

A direct approach

Depending on your organisational culture, your previous experience and your comfort levels, a direct conversation with your leadership team might not be the best approach for you. While an open conversation is the most positive approach, where employees do not feel able to do this, there are alternative mechanisms. Most organisations have anonymous methods for employees to communicate with them such as a confidential helpline, an employee assistance program, a union or employee feedback platforms. Find out which mechanisms are open to you by reading your staff handbook, intranet and employee communications.  

Should anonymity be the best option for you then remember to apply step 1 – assuming positive intent and step 3 – being clear on your intention, these steps will increase the chances of your message being understood and of positive action being taken in your organisation.

However you decide to start the conversations about race in your organisation, remember that this takes bravery and effort so you should be proud of yourself. Remember to be kind to yourself and to reach out for help whenever you need it. And finally, remember that by pushing through your discomfort, you get to a place of learning and of growth.  

Aggie Mutuma is a director at Mahogany Inclusion Partners.
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