Talking about Race at Work: Opportunities for Courageous Leadership at Every Level

Here are some ways for your organization to learn and grow as we talk about race in the workplace.

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Whether you recognize it or not, race is a topic of conversation in your workplace. It is often hidden beneath the surface, obvious only to the person who is on the receiving end of questions and comments such as the following:

  • “How do you know that comment was related to your race?”
  • “Where are you from-from?”
  • “You two just need to work together some more and everything will be fine.”
  • “I support peaceful protests, but not the rioting.”
  • “She said that to you?! I'm going to report her to HR.”

The bigger question is, how prepared are your supervisors, managers and leaders to recognize, initiate and navigate the often difficult conversations that need to be had when topics related to race arise in everyday workplace interactions?

Now more than ever, it’s important to recognize that the topic of  race can and does “pop up” in everyday coworker conversations – and yet also remains hidden in the long-unquestioned assumptions, policies and practices drawn on to quickly “resolve” these situations.

However, to help build more authentically inclusive organizations, it is important to instead pause, take a deep breath and engage in a more meaningful conversation – and hopefully, organizational learning and growth. The following list represents just a few of the opportunities.

Recognizing unconscious bias in the moment

Many organizations have invested in implicit bias training. While this is a good start, it’s important to dig in deeper and recognize the importance of talking about the ways implicit bias actually shows up in our everyday workplace interactions.

For example, a white leader may be hesitant to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement at an all-employee meeting because the majority of employees are white. However, this leader may fail to realize that employees of all racial backgrounds increasingly expect leaders to acknowledge and discuss how they see events, like the recent protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, connecting to the organization’s values – and the employees, customers and communities the organization serves.

Furthermore, it’s important for leaders to realize the powerful symbolic message talking about issues of race sends to minoritized employees and their allies within the organization. A leader who exhibits the awareness and courage to discuss what is happening outside the organization, signals that s/he realizes that these issues are indeed playing out inside the organization, too – in settings like every day lunchtime conversations and pre-meeting small talk.

This, in turn, helps minority employees feel seen and valued, which is important given that they often feel pressure to remain silent in the face of hurtful or ignorant coworker comments. In this way, acknowledging “what is really going on” helps to open a more authentic, robust dialogue about the role of race in our everyday lives – at work and beyond.

Recognizing the complexity of employees’ identities

We all have multiple aspects of our identities and individual preferences for how we identify ourselves. We may identify simply as white or Black. Some of us may have deep family values and traditions related to our ethnic heritage, whether that is Nigerian, Italian, Mexican, Chinese or another national or ethnic group. We may also be bi-racial, multi-racial or have family members of different races through marriage, adoption or our chosen families.

It is also important to remember that no racial group is a monolith; we are individuals with unique identities and claim the aspects of our identity that are most significant to us. For example, some Black employees may prefer to identify as “Black,” while others may prefer “African American” or to describe themselves as “of African descent.” Some may choose to simply identify as “American.” Similarly, Hispanic employees may prefer “Latino,” “Latinx,” “Mexican American,” or “Chicano," depending on family background or generational differences. And some bi-racial or multi-racial colleagues may identify with multiple racial or ethnic identities, which can prove difficult for them if their coworkers “see them” as belonging only to one race.

We are all individuals who claim the identity that is most meaningful to us based on our family background, the community in which we live, the time in which we grew up and where we are on our personal life journey. It is also important to recognize that our language around identities will continue to change (as it already has through the years).

Science and technology is also playing a role in expanding our conversations related to identity. For example, social media makes it easier for people to find and connect with others who share their identities and experiences, while the now widely available DNA test is opening up new identity questions for many.

Many people who grew up claiming an identity of “white” are learning that their racial and ethnic identities are much more complex than they were taught by their families – and may even reveal contradictions or unknown aspects of their family history. As this example illustrates, our understanding of our individual identities – and the aspects of it that are most important to us – is complicated and can change over time. 

Recognizing the risks of “speaking up” at work

In the workplace, we are often encouraged to “speak up” if we have a concern or if we are the target of inappropriate comments or behavior by colleagues. However, in most workplaces “speaking up” is much easier said than done.

The formal and informal power dynamics in the workplace make “speaking up” a risky proposition for members of a racial minority, especially if they are also newer to the organization and/or lower in the organizational hierarchy. They may have their concerns dismissed or denied when they do speak up (“Oh that’s just, John, he didn’t mean anything by it.”), or they may go through a formal human resources investigation only to have the organization rationalize away the severity of the offense and fail to hold people accountable.

These organizational failures then become stories that are shared by individuals both across individual organizations and among individuals of affected racial groups, becoming a hidden but powerful aspect shaping organizational norms and culture.

To counteract these issues, rather than simply expect employees to “speak up,” managers, leaders and human resources professionals need to demonstrate through action that individuals – regardless of title, tenure or connections – will be held accountable.

Ultimately, if the encouragement to “speak up” is not backed up with real accountability for perpetrators, neither minoritized employees nor their allies will feel the risk of speaking up is worth the costs, which can include being socially ostracized, being passed over for assignments, and even voluntary or involuntary job loss.

On the opposite end, if organizations prioritize treating all employees with dignity and respect and provide the skills training necessary to support meaningful conversations and actions in support of minoritized groups – all employees will feel valued and bring their full talents to the organization.

Want to learn more about how to facilitate a more equitable and inclusive culture that demonstrates awareness and commitment to shared growth and progress? Join us for our regular monthly Workplace Link & Learns

Interested in investing in your personal and career growth? Check out our four-course graduate certificate and master’s degree in organizational communication.

About the Author: Angie Pastorek, Ph.D., is a program director and lead faculty member for the graduate programs in organizational communication at the University of Kansas Edwards Campus in Overland Park, Kansas. Prior to joining KU, Angie spent more than 10 years in a variety of corporate employee development and internal communication/consulting roles for companies including Deloitte and Siemens Healthcare.

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