What To Do If You See Racism In Your Workplace

Speaking up is risky, but it helps to take a thoughtful approach that garners support

What To Do If You See Racism In Your Workplace

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Speaking up against racism in the workplace is fraught with risk. Yet saying nothing at all only ensures that problems will continue unabated.

Like so many hard conversations, it’s important to broach this potentially uncomfortable topic with a well-planned, intentional approach that takes into account a variety of factors, says Dana Brownlee, the founder and owner of Professionalism Matters, a corporate training and consulting company.

“It’s hard to talk about racism,” she says. “We have a difficult history here … and people often feel defensive or guilty. Or they’re afraid they might say the wrong thing and be judged for it. There’s any number of reasons why these conversations can be difficult.”

A more thoughtful approach can help minimize the chances of creating a defensive reaction that ultimately results in people mentally shutting down. That, in turn, renders them unwilling to truly listen to what you have to say and impedes any kind of progress, says Brownlee, who has developed a course for LinkedIn Learning called How to Speak Up Against Racism at Work.

But approaches aside, doing nothing is not the answer, notes Brownlee, the author of The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up: Project Management Techniques from the Trenches.

“It’s like standing on a moving walkway,” she says. “If we just stand still and don’t actively turn around and walk in the other direction, you’ll still get racist outcomes even though you didn’t intend to.

“You can either be non-racist [a passive stance] or be anti-racist, which means you’re actively trying to change things by pushing back against biased or potentially offensive comments, policies and so forth.”

Honor different views

So what advice does Brownlee have for people who see racism in the workplace? For starters, you’re doomed to disappointment and failure if your main goal is to get everyone in a discussion to view things the way you see them.

“Everyone is shaped by their own life experiences,” she says. “We all come from different backgrounds and upbringings, so it’s a bit much to think that everyone will see things exactly like you see them. So it’s important to give them the space to have their own perspectives. People can shift their opinions, but will only do so over time.”

Labeling also is not a good idea. For example, if there are no people of color on a company’s board of directors, telling, say, a senior executive that the organization is racist probably isn’t an effective approach.

“Unfortunately, the term ‘racist’ often is perceived as a scarlet letter,” Brownlee says. “Labeling generally is not a productive use of time and energy. It’s similar to giving feedback to a less-productive employee; instead of saying they’re lazy, it’s more constructive to point out that everyone on the employee’s team averages 20 sales a month while that employee averages 10 a month.

“So it’s important to go to the facts, as in we don’t have any black people on the board of directors, for example, instead of using labels.”

Firm but diplomatic

In addition, stating things as a question “lands softer” than a statement. It also provides an opportunity to find support by bringing others into the discussion who might have similar views.

For example, instead of stating that the speaker panel for a conference isn’t diverse enough, an employee could note that the panel isn’t very diverse and ask how others feel about this, given the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

While using effective wording is a good strategy, it’s also important to make your point firmly, even though it might feel uncomfortable, so it’s not easily dismissed.

“I do believe there’s a tension point in these conversations between remaining comfortable and making progress,” Brownlee says. “If you only push the group to the extent that everyone remains comfortable, you’ll only progress as far as the least progressive person, so there’s little or no movement.

“So like anything else in life, if you want to gain any benefit, you have to be able to withstand some level of discomfort. And interestingly enough, we do this in other areas of our lives, such as with personal trainers or therapists. Pushing past discomfort is how we make progress.”

Consider your role

Another thing to consider: While it’s so important for everyone to speak up against racism — particularly white people — it’s also important for them to thoughtfully consider how their position and perspective might differ from their counterparts of color.

“If I’m part of a marginalized community, I can speak from a certain perspective,” she says. “But if you’re a white guy and you notice that black colleagues don’t get promoted, get talked over or always get assigned to more menial tasks, it’s important for you to speak up about that.

“But I’d recommend that you first consider talking to some colleagues of color to learn more, gain additional perspectives or even garner support before you step in.”

But Brownlee stresses that while it’s ideal to check off these boxes to make your argument more palatable, it can’t be a prerequisite. The truth is that uncomfortable conversations sometimes are a necessary part of true progress.

Brownlee also says it’s critical to strategically consider stakeholder interests when you want to push forward a potentially controversial viewpoint or objective. For example, which people or parties will be most impacted by your proposal? Who are the most influential people? Who might be for or against whatever you’re proposing? What motivates key people in the decision-making process?

“You can’t just blurt something out in a group meeting,” she says. “You may want to consider what motivates people at a meeting. Maybe it’s a legal issue — avoiding a lawsuit — or a return-on-investment issue for them. Knowing what motivates them will help you align your pitch with their interests and build a good business case.

“After that, you can collect data that supports and appeals to their motivations.”

Other considerations

Moreover, it’s also important to think about the best setting for approaching this sensitive topic. Maybe a one-on-one convo in an office is best. Or a group setting. Or an off-site lunch. Maybe a third party should be present to mediate a bit, she suggests.

“You have to think about the logistics around it. It can make a big difference, so be sure to think it through.”

The bottom line: Don’t be daunted. And silence is not an option.

“It’s always risky to speak truth to power, especially if you work in an environment that’s not open to new ideas or that’s autocratic,” Brownlee says. “You could be ostracized — not be invited to sit at the cool kids’ table at lunch anymore — or suffer other repercussions.

“But the real key to truly building an anti-racist workplace is to get out of the mindset that it’s only the responsibility of the people who run the diversity, equity and inclusion programs or the responsibility of the board of directors. It’s everyone’s responsibility.” 



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