After Ferguson, How Do You Handle Racial Tension In the Workplace?

November 25, 2014 1:12 am

By Julissa Catalan

Reena Hajat Carroll, Sharon Harvey Davis, Jim Norman

The shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown and the subsequent protests in Ferguson, Mo., are reminiscent of racially charged incidents such as the Rodney King beating and the O.J. Simpson trial in the 1990s and, more recently, the shooting of 17-year old Trayvon Martin in 2012.

Not only have we seen a pattern in these crimes, but the division in public opinion follows that same result as well—a racial divide.

As DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti points out, city leadership statistics tend to mirror the numbers within large corporations—white-male dominated.

Ferguson is a perfect example of this. Therefore it is unavoidable that its residents will take the tension felt in their neighborhood into their place of work.

Employees likely won’t see eye-to-eye about the events in Ferguson, the grand jury’s decision and racial tensions in America at large.

So what can corporations do to stay proactive in times like these?

We asked three diversity leaders—Reena Hajat Carroll, Executive Director, Diversity Awareness Partnership; Sharon Harvey Davis, Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer of Ameren (No. 3 in the DiversityInc Top 7 Utilities); and James Norman, Principal, Inclusion Squared and former Vice President, Diversity and Community Involvement, Kraft Foods Group (No. 35 in the DiversityInc Top 50)—to share best practices on how to create and maintain a safe work environment while racial tensions rise both in and out of the office.

“Unfortunately, many companies will not acknowledge the unfortunate and tragic event that has captured our attention and emotion,” says Norman, who has more than 30 years’ experience in diversity management. “Leadership within an organization should acknowledge the tragedy for Michael Brown, his family, the police officer, his family and the community of Ferguson, Missouri.”

Some companies, like Ameren, have been very forthright in addressing the aftermath as the shooting of Michael Brown took place in a suburb of St. Louis, where the utility’s headquarters are located.

“At Ameren we have prepared for Ferguson conversations through our quarterly training on how to have difficult conversations. We have tried to be proactive by preparing for difficult discussions like the ones related to Ferguson and many other diversity areas with our diversity quarterly training,” says Harvey Davis, a former Ferguson resident who still owns property in the city.

How should employers and HR departments prepare for and handle situations like this?

  • Employee Resource Groups: ERGs are a direct connection to employees, especially those from underrepresented groups. In this case, your Black/African-American ERG—along with all your ERGs—can help diffuse the situation by providing cultural-competence training.
  • Executive Diversity Councils: Implementing the importance of diversity and inclusion within the corporate setting is an invaluable tool in situations like these. Visible leaders who are on board with an inclusive environment show employees that racism or other forms of discrimination are not allowed.

“Leadership should express their willingness to discuss difficult issues with their employees and listen to concerns impacting their and their organization’s ability to achieve the vision and values of diversity and inclusion,” says Norman. “Leaders should take the opportunity to restate their commitment to diversity and inclusion, as well as, their organization’s zero-tolerance policy related to harassment and discrimination.

How can companies facilitate the discussion?

“It is absolutely imperative that HR departments have a forum or safe space set up for employees to process current events,” says Carroll, who heads the St. Louis-based nonprofit. “It is ridiculous to think that events happening in the city you live in don’t have an impact on employees attitudes or productivity, which is why they must not be avoided. We have been told by several St. Louis employees of different races that they wish they worked in another environment because going to work and hearing the blaring discrimination, stereotyping and insensitivity has been distressing from colleagues they thought subscribed to principles of inclusion.”

The Diversity Awareness Partnership suggests the following action items, which can be instituted at companies and corporations in any city:

1)    Talk about race and racism. Don’t avoid this topic regardless of how hard it is to discuss.

2)     Hire a skilled third-party facilitator to host conversations about Ferguson/racial tension.

3)     Create a safe space void of power dynamics. Employees should feel comfortable sharing without fear of their manager’s response.

4)     Ensure all managers/directors go through facilitation training to learn the difference between dialogue and debate.

5)     Survey employees to find out what they need on an on-going basis to ensure the workplace remains racially inclusive.

6)     Don’t be afraid to make a mistake when talking about race and discrimination.

How do you get the message across? 

According to Carroll, DAP “believes that a company must acknowledge the state of race relations in the city, as the death of Michael Brown has touched every single person in this city in one way or the other.”

The approach can be localized to events in your company’s locations, focused on Ferguson, or answer racial tensions increasing nationwide.

“By avoiding discussion around this topic, employers are contributing to the problems of racial division,” Carroll adds.

How can companies manage stereotypes?

When an employee says, “The protesting is getting a little out of control. Enough is enough already,” Carroll suggests asking engaging questions such as, “Why do you think they are out their protesting in the first place?”

She finds that “using the Socratic method helps both parties understand different perspectives.”

Norman suggests that leaders use unfortunate events like these as “an opportunity to remind the organization and its employees of the importance of empathy and respect.”

“The most important thing for diversity success is laying the groundwork and foundation so that employees have the tools they need when challenging situations occur,” says Harvey Davis.