Let’s talk about race

Race – the topic that can often be the elephant in the room and can become uncomfortable for those participating in the discussion. On the other side of that, it can be emotionally exhausting for those conducting and navigating through these difficult conversations.

All over the world, protests have been triggered in response to the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed 46-year-old black man who died while a Minnesota police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. This sparked conversations about race, justice, policing and politics among those both comfortable and new to such topics.

These conversations can be extremely hard, but they are healthy and necessary. There is a general consensus that racism is bad, but for real progress to be made towards an anti-racist society, we need to talk about race, systemic racism, privilege and the roles they play in both personal and professional domains. It is no longer acceptable to stay silent on the matter.

You may have already started a dialogue about race among your friends and family, but how do we conduct these conversations in a professional space? And what are the benefits of doing so?

Talking about race in the workplace

Race is seen to largely affect the political and the social spheres but also plays a significant role in the workplace. Most will agree that increasing diversity and inclusivity in the workplace is a good thing, an agenda that IOM3 is committed to, but diversity by itself is not enough. Addressing the benefits of creating conversations about race in a working environment is necessary.

When constructive conversation about our differences is avoided, it can prevent open communication and therefore negatively affect productivity. In addition, open dialogue about race can help those involved recognise that the factors that lead to political tension can exist within the workplace.

Edith Cooper, Head of Human Capital at Goldman Sachs, recently authored an article for Business Insider, Why Goldman Sachs is encouraging employees to talk about race at work – and why as a black woman I think this is so important, where she writes, ‘Ultimately, our experience at work is a collection of interactions with the people around us. When those interactions are stimulating and challenging and take place in an environment of inclusivity and collaboration, you have a better experience and, in turn, you perform better… because as a result of those varied inputs and insights, you are better.’

Ignoring issues related to race in the workplace is ignoring issues that affect your co-workers, employees and/or employers. Many of them can be related to racial inequality in a professional environment. Matters affecting the black community, for example, are not only present on a personal level, but statistics demonstrate that professional development is also held back.

In a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development report, three in 10 black employees said that discrimination contributed to a lack of career progression and that would explain low ethnic diversity among UK’s senior managers. Although there are many approaches taken by companies and organisation to improve this, some can be one-dimensional, tokenistic representation of people of colour, with little consideration of individual experiences.

More specifically, in engineering, black graduates are less likely to find jobs than white students with lower second or third-class degrees, according to a Royal Academy of Engineering report that highlights some significant inequalities within the profession.

The Diversity in Engineering report found that being black or minority ethnic was a bigger obstacle to employment than any other factor considered, including the type of degree gained, attending a less prestigious university or gender.

How to acknowledge and address race and biases

Conversation and dialogue have the power to shift inclusion from a policy or a process to real behavioural change throughout an organisation, allowing to move past the ‘shame and blame’ dynamic when reflecting on one’s own biases. When these biases have been addressed, we can then start to navigate through how we manage them.

So how do we have these healthy conversations about race at work?

The society of Human Resource Management provides four steps in how to approach them:

  • Acknowledge racial tension
  • Create the right setting
  • Provide education and resources
  • Involve employee resource groups

In addition, CIPD suggests employers to:

  • Understand what is happening in the organisation
  • Be aware of intersectionality and examine progression barriers through multiple lenses
  • Critically appraise organisation’s culture
  • Actively encourage employee voice to inform change
  • Address unconscious bias

We still have a long way to go. But if the last few weeks has taught us anything, the recognition of systemic racism, and the reflection on our own society and looking at how we can do better, has potential to be a catalyst for change. If companies and organisations can continue the work on creating a dialogue about racism worldwide, then it can only accelerate the progression towards a truly anti-racist society.

To read the IOM3 statement on diversity and inclusion, in light of recent events, please visit www.iom3.org/news/2020/jun/08/iom3-inclusivity

Colin Church is the CEO of the Institute of Materials, Minerals & Mining

Shardell Joseph is News Writer for Materials World magazine and IOM3 Diversity Lead