Banning Work Conversations About Race Is Counterproductive

After the video of police officer Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd hit the internet, many organizations lent their support to calls for racial justice. One year later anti-Asian hate crimes, police murders of Black Americans and racial discrimination persist, yet some companies are sending signals that they are ready to move on.

Tech companies like Basecamp and Coinbase have now characterized racial injustice as a “political” topic inappropriate for the workplace. Even the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — which has publicly denounced systemic racism and is tasked with enforcing laws against workplace discrimination — has told employees that Black Lives Matter is a topic that should be limited to “personal conversations.” This framing not only misrepresents the nature of these conversations, it represents a shift that could be damaging to employees and workplace cultures.

Many Basecamp employees responded swiftly and negatively to the change — within one week, at least one-third of employees had publicly resigned. But some pundits and business leaders have praised Coinbase and Basecamp, suggesting the ban removes unnecessary distractions and allows people to focus on work. In truth, it’s an ineffective solution to a real problem many organizations are experiencing: Having these conversations at work is both unavoidable and hard. Doing it well requires effort. Instead of trying to forbid these conversations, leaders should focus on how they can make them better.

First, recognize that employees want to have these conversations. Leaders may think there is a silent majority of employees that would prefer to avoid these topics. However, new data tell a different story: In a recent survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of our company, 68% of Americans said they should be able to discuss racial injustice at work.

Even after considering this data, some leaders I speak with still view this topic as too messy, and something that’s more appropriate for discussion outside of work hours. What these leaders are missing is that, for people from underrepresented groups, that’s practically impossible. Nearly half of employed Americans said they witnessed or experienced racial bias or discrimination at work in the past 12 months. The fact that this statistic may surprise many leaders is exactly why these conversations are so important. 

Yes, they’re often uncomfortable. People are afraid to get things “wrong,” and in doing so to be perceived as racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise uninclusive. When we get feedback that suggests we may have done something offensive — or worse for many Americans, racist — we feel attacked and shut down. But criticism doesn’t need to be a threat. Instead, it can be viewed as an opportunity to learn and improve, something successful people are able to do in many other areas of life and business.

These conversations are not only important to employees as individuals, they can be a valuable tool in creating a more inclusive workplace — a topic employees care about deeply. Recent data show that 72% of people want their employer to invest in creating an inclusive workplace.

However, allowing these conversations to happen without any structure or guidance will not necessarily foster inclusion, and can have an adverse effect on people from underrepresented backgrounds. For example, a discussion about racial injustice might create the space for someone to perpetuate offensive stereotypes.

These discussions are most productive when companies create dedicated space for them, like small group discussions that people can choose to attend. Such spaces should have explicit norms and guidance — for example, a shared understanding that the goal of the conversation is not to solve problems or create closure, a common agreement not to speak on behalf of others, and a facilitator who can help ensure participants’ voices are heard or address offensive statements head-on.

I generally recommend that these conversations be optional, rather than mandatory. The goal of these conversations is not to engage every single person in the company in conversation. And the people who choose to opt out of these discussions are likely to be those most likely to either cause harm or be harmed. That may mean, of course, that people who have a lot of learning to do aren’t there. But it also means employees of color, who may not be in a headspace to engage with colleagues on this topic, don’t have to participate, and people who would be disruptive can opt out. In my experience, leaders are often surprised how many people in their organization will opt in. 

As Dustin Moskovitz, CEO of Asana, recently shared, creating these structured conversations has not only allowed people to process current events together, it gives people who want to discuss these topics a place to do so. While Asana doesn’t restrict conversations anywhere, it has found that they rarely happen in general settings. 

As Asana and other companies who are navigating these conversations know, these conversations will, and should, occur — regardless of edicts from management. Employees are human and most either cannot or don’t want to pretend that the outside world does not exist for eight or more hours a day, especially when what’s happening in the world might be reflected at work. 

Ultimately, supporting the people who want to have these conversations, and equipping them to do it well, is a far more effective way to “limit distraction” than trying to ban discussion altogether.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joelle Emerson is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Paradigm, a diversity, equity and inclusion strategy firm. She was a civil-rights lawyer prior to founding Paradigm.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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