Heeding the Painful Lessons of Charlottesville

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Heeding the Painful Lessons of Charlottesville

By Sarah Alter - 11/29/2017

The sight of self-identified white nationalists marching in Charlottesville, Va. — and the death of a young female counter-protestor — struck a nerve for millions of Americans. It also caused some soul-searching among companies and corporate leaders who usually shy away from controversy.

It’s time to talk about race in society — and the workplace. Because as NEW said in August, “The events of Charlottesville remind us that the fight for equality is far from over.”

“Tapestry: Leveraging the Rich Diversity of Women,” a 2014 NEW report, put numbers to something we already knew: Multicultural women experience the workplace much differently than their white female (and male) colleagues. Recent research confirms that nonwhite Americans of both genders perceive race differently than whites.

Eighty-five percent of black Americans told the Public Religion Research Institute that “black people face a lot of discrimination in the United States.” But only 66 percent of Hispanics, 64 percent of those mixed-race, 55 percent of Asian-Pacific Islanders and 47 percent of white Americans agreed with them.

These vast differences in perception can have big implications for your diversity training, leadership development, talent management — and your company.

When it comes to race in the workplace, young employees in your company may think very differently than your senior executives, especially if they are white. The Public Religion Research Institute found that more than 60 percent of young white adults (aged 18-29) believe blacks face “a considerable amount of discrimination,” while just 43 percent of white seniors (aged 65 or older) do.

These differences may come into play during recruitment, evaluations, reorganizations, promotions and firings.  

The Cost of Silence    

Just because your team isn’t talking about race doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about it. A March Gallup Poll revealed that 42 percent of Americans now worry "a great deal" about race relations in the United States, up from 17 percent in 2014.

As retail and consumer goods companies seek to leverage diversity and attract, retain and advance the best talent, we must openly address race relations at work.

According to a report by the Center for Talent Innovation, nearly four in 10 black professionals feel “it is never acceptable” at their companies to speak out about their experiences of racial bias. A similar percentage of Asian Americans (36 percent) and more than one-fourth of Hispanics and white professionals agree.

Employees who feel silenced about racial discrimination are more likely to walk out (or check out). Black professionals who were not comfortable talking about bias were three times more likely to intend to leave their employers in the next year compared to black colleagues who did feel comfortable talking about bias (21 percent vs. 3 percent, respectively), and they were 13 times more likely to feel disengaged (13 percent vs. 1 percent, respectively).

As one white woman who participated in the Center or Talent Innovation’s focus groups said, “Leaders think a response would distract us from the business, but actually the silence is more distracting. When there’s an elephant in the room, it makes a company look cowardly not to address it in some way, even if it’s only internally.”

Three Strategies

Kira Hudson Banks of Saint Louis University offers three strategies for addressing race at work. Her game plan, published in Harvard Business Review last year, can be effective for retailers big and small.

Her strategies are:

1. Make inclusion a long-term investment

Standalone trainings and one-off dialogues — though currently considered best practice — are too quickly forgotten and too easily written off as “nice to do,” limiting a company’s ability to foster sustained workplace climate change, Banks says.

You may have good intentions, but one-time diversity training sessions scream, “We feel we should do this, but it’s not a priority.”

2. Embrace and reframe conflict

Conversations about race can get tense, fast. “Fear of being seen as ‘confrontational’ for either white or minority employees hinders open dialogue,” Banks says. “Instead of getting surprised by conflict, expect it, and lean on management and facilitation skills that include listening, being color-cognizant rather than color-blind, responding non-defensively, being open to learning, and self-reflecting about how personal and social identities can influence these interactions.”

3. Be proactive about inclusion efforts

“Every manager should be willing to proactively ask employees to talk about how they feel race has influenced their experience at the company, rather than wait for a crisis situation,” Banks advises.

She suggests a few starter questions to ask employees:

  • Have you experienced any barriers to success at this company related to your race?
  • Have you noticed any other obstacles in the way to your success?
  • Is there anything we can do better to facilitate your success and sense of inclusion?
  • In terms of mentorship and promotion, do you sense that those happen without bias?

A word of warning: When you strip away the Band-Aid, prepared for what you find underneath.

By talking to your employees about how they perceive their company, their leaders and their peers, you’ll get a better picture of the underlying injury and how to heal it.

Sarah Alter is president and CEO of the Network of Executive Women, Retail and Consumer Goods, a learning and leadership community representing more than 10,000 members, 950 companies, 100 corporate partners and 21 regional groups in the United States and Canada. Learn more at newonline.org.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.