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Talking About Racism

If you are responsible for training that promotes individual and organizational performance, what can and should you do to address racism in the workplace? Organizations wishing to take advantage of the improved innovation and productivity that results from increased inclusion and diversity hope to resolve these issues with quotas or a program on “unconscious bias at work.” However, when it comes to addressing race, there is a drift into a safer place. 

Attempts to cover up the topic of racism add no value to your organization or community. Those organizations that are willing to have courageous conversations about racism gain from having a more engaged and committed workforce where everyone feels they belong. Such an undertaking must be done in a safe environment and led by an experienced facilitator who knows how to teach people “how to swim in the deep water.” 

The need to focus on racism, in particular, is essential if organizations wish to ever be inclusive. Racism is a prejudice or act of discrimination against someone based on biological factors—in the United States euphemistically referred to as “people of color.” While there are hundreds of potential racial characteristics, the predominant one in the United States is skin color. The avoidance of having an open discussion about race in organizations and communities must be addressed if inclusion is going to be achieved. Here are a few examples from the field where training programs drifted away from dealing directly with the implications of racism.

Example 1: In selecting a video to demonstrate differences in perceptions, the diversity team of a Fortune 100 company had a choice of using a video that dramatically demonstrated peoples’ perceptions of a black teenager, an Asian storeowner, and a white elderly female or a video with a very upbeat and positive tone, demonstrating accomplished people who were blind, Asian, female, black, and on the Autism spectrum. The team also had the choice of using both videos at different parts of the program. Each video was less than four minutes long. 

The overwhelming majority of those on the team wanted to only use the more positive video. They thought that the video that dealt directly with racism could bother some employees. The African American women on the team made it clear that if the company wanted to stay safe in the “shallow waters,” it would never be a place where black employees would feel welcome. “We must go into the deep water because that is where the black employees spend their lives,” they said. The team ended up allowing the trainer for each program to deliver which video they are most comfortable with. 

Example 2: A major manufacturer in the Midwest wanted to see what they could do to recruit and retain more black employees. The community where the headquarters and manufacturing plant were located was overwhelmingly white. In order to address this issue, 20 senior leaders were invited to a one-day retreat on the impact of unconscious bias on recruiting, retaining, developing, and engaging underrepresented groups. 

The audience for the program was made up mostly of white men, with five white women and one African American man also in attendance. The program began with the meaning of unconscious bias, the neurosciences of bias, and the role that unconscious biases plays in the workplace. The discussion then turned to why they thought the company had such a bad record of retaining black employees. 

The one black leader in the room said he wanted to share something he had never told anyone at work. When he first moved to town, he wanted to jog in the park. His wife told him to wear a full jogging suit, so it would be clear that he was jogging like everyone else. Since it was very hot and humid, he decided to wear a T-shirt and shorts. After 10 minutes of jogging and some “unfriendly” stares, a police car pulled up next to him and asked for his identification papers, his reason for being in the park, and where he lived. While the interrogation was taking place, a small crowd gathered. Since the man was new in the community and did not want to be seen being stopped by the police, he volunteered to go directly back to his home. From then on, he always wore a full jogging suit when running, regardless of the weather. 


During this emotional testimonial, the white leaders in the room looked in the direction of their black co-worker but avoided direct eye contact. When the facilitator asked the leaders what they thought of the incident, they blamed it on a bad cop. They did not want to address the very real pain and humiliation that their co-worker experienced. They were unwilling to accept that this incident was common in their community and that this practice of racism was directly tied to the reason they could not retain black employees. When asked if the company might be willing to hold a community meeting with the police to discuss the topic, there was total denial of a problem. This was a company town where everyone got along. The reality of racism was going to be ignored since it was too controversial to discuss honestly. 

Example 3: A large financial organization asked to have a customized program developed for them to help their leaders and managers become more inclusive. The program was designed by an external consulting group who worked with the chief diversity officer. The program content included several hypothetical cases and a great deal of interactive sharing of perceptions, values, and biases. Five days before the launch of the program, the legal department of the organization determined that there could be no discussion of privilege, actual cases of perceived bias people may have experienced at work, or any real biases people in the training program may have. 

The chief diversity officer had no choice but to adhere to the legal department’s wishes, and the watered-down program had to go through extensive revisions that eliminated any possible controversial topics or critical conversations about race.

Organizations are trying to tone down their diversity and inclusion initiatives by ignoring the deeply held truths about racism in their organizations and society for fear that going there will open wounds best left to fester. In the end, though, that cowardice helps no one.

Have you led or participated in training on sensitive topics, such as racism? Share your thoughts and best practices in the Comments section below.

© 2017 ATD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

About the Author
Neal Goodman is an internationally recognized authority on globalization, global mindset development, and cultural competence for global corporations. His programs have helped hundreds of thousands of corporate executives to be more effective in international settings by learning how to apply a global mindset. Global Dynamics, the company he co-founded in 1983, designs, organizes, and implements programs that support global mindset development, cultural competence, global team building, global leadership, virtual workforce effectiveness, and diversity and inclusion in leading Fortune 500 companies that wish to succeed in the global arena. As CEO of GDI, he leads a team of more than 400 innovative, cross-cultural experts from around the globe to create in-person, blended, and web-based solutions for his clients.
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