Don’t Shy Away From Discussing Difficult Topics Of Race And Equity At Work

When a news event becomes a topic of national conversation, it’s important that mission-driven organizations address it head on.

Don’t Shy Away From Discussing Difficult Topics Of Race And Equity At Work
[Photo: Mike Wilson via Unsplash]

When I was growing up in the 1980s, my father reminded me repeatedly: “Never talk politics or religion at work. You have nothing to gain and a lot to lose.”


But those were different times. Today, when an organization’s leadership fails to acknowledge what its team may be going through after a traumatic event–from terrorism to acts of racial injustice to the wide range of other events impacting people’s lives–it misses an opportunity to engage its team and make progress toward real change. 

This is particularly true for organizations committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. You don’t have to take sides or have the perfect words. Acknowledging what people are going through and creating safe spaces for conversation goes a long way toward cultivating a workplace culture in which everyone on the team feel invested.

Over the last few years, several incidents have forced employers to rethink what topics are safe for work.

After George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin in July 2013, the management of New York-based nonprofit Living Cities took a step back to reevaluate how it approaches integrating discussions about race, equity, and inclusion into the fabric of the organization, according to Elodie Baquerot, its chief operating officer.

The most powerful moment in the days following the acquittal was when several staff came to management to say that discouraging tough conversations in the workplace was undermining the mission and making it hard for employees to stay there.


“We weren’t creating safe spaces for people to bring their full selves to work, to talk about racial inequities and how current events were landing with them,” says Baquerot. “Our lack of open and honest discussion about race was having negative implications for our staff and, ultimately, proving to be a barrier to impact.”

The feedback forced Living Cities, an organization that works with civic leaders to improve the economic well-being of low-income residents, to consider how it could make racial equity a more explicit value, impacting both the organization and many individual members of the team. It is now a fundamental aspect of its strategy, both internally, in hiring and developing staff, and externally, ensuring these issues are reflected in all of its work.

Similarly, in the wake of the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown and the civil unrest that followed in Ferguson, Missouri, the leadership at The Mission Continues, a St. Louis-based organization that works nationally to empower veterans to find purpose through community impact, recognized an immediate need for complex conversations about social and racial justice.

“We made mistakes in framing our first conversation, but it started a dialogue that continues today, both through the efforts of the Inclusion and Diversity Group that it catalyzed, as well as in organic conversations that happen much more frequently,“ says the organization’s president Spencer Kympton. “Now, team members are aware of our expectation that we support each other in times of tragedy and need.”

Recently, after the tragic events at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, many of The Mission Continues staff reached out to their teammates who identify as LGBTQ with explicit expressions of empathy and kindness.


How does an organization open the lines of communication on difficult topics? Here are a few guidelines to ensure it’s done with both thought and care:

Make it optional
People will want different forms of support and/or privacy at work. Invite everyone; require attendance of no one.

Lay the groundwork
Begin by acknowledging that these conversations are difficult and setting some ground rules. The purpose of the dialogue is to create the space for staff to share their thoughts and feelings about issues that are important to them.

Everyone who is participating in the discussion is doing so by choice, with the intention of learning and sharing, not judging one another. The expectation is that all participants will accept and honor one another’s good intentions.

This is a dialogue about personal experience; no one is the teacher and no one is the student. Be comfortable allowing moments of silence, knowing they will happen.


Schedule the discussion
This will enable participants to think through what they might (or might not) want to share. Also, people tend to enter the dialogue more prepared to share than they do when they are caught off guard.

Choose the right facilitator
This dialogue should be led by an executive–ideally a CEO or divisional head. If your organization lacks an executive with strong facilitation skills, consider bringing someone in to lead the first discussion or two, while a leader develops the skills.

Be real and be ready
Be prepared to share thoughts authentically and show vulnerability. Emotions can run high; allow space for cracking voices, tears, and other expressions of deep feeling.

Cool down
If at all possible, encourage people to leave room on their calendars to cool down independently at the end of the dialogue. It can be challenging to pivot from a potentially intense discussion to the more quotidian aspects of the workplace.

Follow up
Identify resources for folks who want to better understand the issues and build their own competencies before, during, and after the conversation.


While these conversations are never easy, they are important. The issues are on your team members’ minds, whether you raise them or not. Being proactive and creating space for sharing shows that leadership values and respects all people.

Has your organization encouraged these kinds of discussions? We’d love to hear about it.

Have something to say about this article? You can email us and let us know. If it’s interesting and thoughtful, we may publish your response.

About the author

Michelle Kedem is co-founder and partner at On-Ramps, an executive search and human capital consulting firm that serves innovative, mission-driven organizations committed to social change, both nationally and internationally.