Podcast: Courageous Workplace Conversations About Racial Inequality

In our continued look at diversity and inclusion issues, corporate culture consultant Joy Stephens joins XpertHR Legal Editor David Weisenfeld to discuss the importance of having serious conversations about racial inequality to create greater understanding among your employees. That includes raising questions with your management team.

"If black people make up 10% or 11% of the country, why don't they make up 10% or 11% of the leadership team?" asked Stephens. "If you have an all-white executive board, ask yourself why." Noting that diversity is no longer an expendable line item, Stephens said she would like to see these conversations extend to other marginalized groups. "The differently abled, LGBT employees and others also suffer from microaggressions," noted Stephens. "All of them need that same attention."

Listen Now

Additional Resources

Podcast: How Employers Should Respond to George Floyd Aftermath

Podcast: Why Diversity and Inclusion Matters More Than Ever

How to Handle an Employee Making Racist Comments


David Weisenfeld: I'm David Weisenfeld for XpertHR.com, published by Reed Business Information and proudly partnered with LexisNexis.

In early June we examined the aftermath of George Floyd's suffocation death at the hands of Minneapolis police, and how employers should contribute to the discussion. But that raised new questions that may hit closer to home when it comes to racial inequality in the workplace.

For starters, is your organization having serious conversations to ensure inclusion among all of your employees? And, what can you do to break down barriers that may exist between employees of different races and cultures?

On this podcast we'll explore those issues and more with Corporate Culture Consultant Joy Stephens of New Heights Academic and Leadership Consulting. Joy recently led a courageous conversations dialogue for employees at our company from a variety of backgrounds, and she's been involved in similar discussions across the country.

Joy, I'd imagine business is hopping with all that's been going on these last couple of months. [0:01:23.7]

Joy Stephens: You know I will say it is bittersweet because the impetus for all of this attention is a very tragic event. But at the same time I am encouraged by the number of people that have reached out saying they want to know more, they're interested in understanding, trying to get an understanding of the bigger picture that is happening now. So that does make me hopeful for the future.

David Weisenfeld: Certainly if any positive can come out of it, that would definitely be it. And there are those who are looking at this time as a unique period to be able to talk about racial issues at work. But I know some people are always more comfortable with that than others. So how do you get those who might be uncomfortable from opening up to do so? [0:02:06.3]

Joy Stephens: That is a good question, and it is a different avenue if you will. Some people on both sides of the conversation are ready to talk and wanting to understand, you know, "What did I miss? What don't I know? Help me see your point of view." And again there are people on both sides who are resistant.

For some people this is the culmination of a very traumatic set of experiences, not just at the hands of the police but in social settings, in work settings, in community settings etc. And some people, they've bottled it up and they don't want to open that bottle.

And then by the same token there are people who have a particular set of beliefs, things that they've grown up being told, that's never been challenged. And you know, those beliefs have set in, and there's a resistance to wanting to expand or to hear something different because it may mean that you were wrong. And sometimes people see being wrong as a flaw. And it's not a character flaw. It's just a lack of information.

So I try to help people understand there's nothing wrong with talking about this. If you're not ready to talk about your experiences we can just talk about what you'd like to see different in the future. And if you're not really ready to be open to different information, just understand that it doesn't negate your childhood, your heritage or anything. It just says there's more information out there that could help you see a different point of view. And sometimes I can use that to get people talking.

David Weisenfeld: Well that's certainly one issue. And another, Joy, is that you might have employees of all different levels on these type of calls. So is there any concern about that where there might be, say, just a handful of black employees but they might be on with a white manager. So can that have a bit of a chilling effect? [0:03:55.5]

Joy Stephens: You know, I would have thought so. But it really depends on the manager. I will say that if there is a manager that is a white - or not a person of color - that is resistant to this type of thing, it's not happening in those pockets. But at the same time, if you have managers or leadership teams that, although they may be, let's say, homogenous in visible diversity, they also have a willingness to want to listen. And I've been working with them about being open, being honest, admitting you don't know everything, being willing to listen to someone's lived experience and creating that safe space for their employees who are people of color in a marginalized community.

And this extends beyond just race. It goes to ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation, all of it. All of these groups have felt as if no one really wanted to hear their story from a corporate standpoint. You know, we've been told, "Don't talk about race, religion or politics," and you realize that race, religion and politics make up a large portion of who we are as people. And so managers are starting to understand, "I need to know my people, and it's okay to talk about this."

It doesn't mean we're going to understand or agree on the first day, but also there's a level of sensitivity that I coach a lot of managers for to give their people space, to resist the urge to talk over, to explain, to diminish, to dismiss, and just listen. Listening is a lot harder than you think. But I'm having a lot of success with people taking that chance.

David Weisenfeld: Well speaking of listening, I was on one of these calls and I was very impressed with how it went, and there were people, and it was not just minority employees, it was white employees, and everybody really raised great points. But that leads to my question, which is, should these conversations be required not just for those who say, "This sounds like a great idea. I'd like to be part of it"?

And I ask that because you could end up with a wonderful discussion but if it's primarily a mix of minority employees and white employees who already are empathetic, then perhaps the people who might be most resistant and might be most in need of a conversation like this might not be there, and the needle doesn't really move. So what are your thoughts on that? [0:06:12.3]

Joy Stephens: I think that some sort of interaction should be required. Now you know there's two ways you can do it. I know some of the discussions that I've led for your company have been recorded. A particular division or a group or a team may want to record it because people miss it, someone's on vacation etc.

And I think if we made something mandatory - it could be attend one of these sessions so that you can hear first-hand what's happening, what the discussion is (it may not be what you think), and if people are reluctant to attend, "Okay, well then at least listen to one of these recordings after the fact, so you can hear what happened. And you may be able to discuss with someone who was there what they thought of it in a smaller space."

But I do think everyone needs to be exposed to this because that's the only way to move forward and to reach some common ground, some common understanding, and for everyone to be involved, regardless of their comfort level.

Now there are different ways to reach them. Like I said, you can do something live or something taped, but I do think that everyone needs to be at that table at some point.

David Weisenfeld: Now have you had a session where you encountered an employee or employees who expressed resistance or had something to say, whether it be negative, about Black Lives Matter or something else that's going on? And if so, how did you handle that? [0:07:32.1]

Joy Stephens: I have. There have been a couple here and there. The way that I like to address it is, 1) I commend them for their honesty because silencing one group does not necessarily bring liberation for another. So everyone is entitled to their opinion. They're entitled to speak on their concerns. And every time that I've had someone that is resistant or reluctant to understand the current state from, say, a black person's point of view, it gives us a chance to educate them. And it's always been respectful. It doesn't have to get into a shouting match or a confrontational interaction.

And once I let them know it's okay to have a different point of view, then we talk about it, you know, where their point of view comes from, why they believe that, why someone else might believe something different. I try to offer up some different examples and let them know that everybody's on a journey, and understanding other people is the beginning of that journey, it's not the end. And they need to be understood as well.

You cannot try to validate someone's else's lived experience by invalidating a different person. So I try to bring them along from that point of view and let them know that their views are valid, but now that they've been able to express their view let us try to give them some additional information.

David Weisenfeld: That's well said. Again our guest is Joy Stephens, a corporate culture consultant. And Joy, in the discussion that I was on there was a black employee who had gone to predominantly white private schools and said she didn't really feel accepted by anyone during this time because there were whites who didn't fully include her and blacks who didn't view her as black enough. What's your reaction when you hear a story like that? [0:09:09.5]

Joy Stephens: You know, I remember that and I identified with that to some extent because I'm an African American woman but I also have a very light skin tone, and I grew up in an environment where people questioned, you know, "Which one of your parents is white?" And the answer is neither. They wondered if I was black enough.

I do remember when Barack Obama first started his campaign in 2007 there was a question, "Does he really understand the black experience because he was born in Hawaii?" blah, blah, blah. And prejudice is universal. And there are different things that people need to deal with. It also gives a different understanding of what is a very varied experience for African Americans.

We talked about colorism, I think, on that call, where it's prejudice inside an ethnic group. So you have black people who may see darker skin tones as less advantageous or lighter skin tones as privileged. And there's a little bit of truth to that.

You may see the same thing in Indian cultures and Japanese cultures, in West Indian, South American, Brazilian, where there is some disagreement or people not seeing eye to eye on skin tone. And we mentioned skin bleaching being like a multi-billion-dollar industry across the world, not just in the United States. And it helps people to understand that, no pun intended, but the problem's not necessarily black and white, and there's a lot of nuance to it. And again, everybody's lived experience, we're all unique. We're all individual crystalline figures. It's not a cookie cutter mentality.

You cannot label one group as a monolith, and I think that was just a good explanation or a good example of that.

David Weisenfeld: Well that certainly was one, and I'm sure you have many others, but is there another single story you could share that's just really jumped out at you during this time that moved you? [0:11:05.4]

Joy Stephens: Yes. And this one was shared by an employee in DC. And he's relatively high in the company and very well respected. Out of respect for him I won't share his name or anything, but he talked about being at home for the weekend with his daughters. His wife was out of town. And everything was going great. He was excited about being Dad of the Year for having managed his daughters for the entire weekend.

And Sunday evening, it's about 11:30, his kids are in bed, a knock at the door. And it's the police. He has no idea why they're at his door. And he says he opened the door, they say that a young woman who's standing outside lost her phone and the Find My iPhone app says it's in this house. Now we all know that those apps are very murky. You know, they don't really give you a pinpoint location.

But instead of calling the phone, pinging the phone, double-checking her story or even trying to see if it would ring, they entered the house, questioned him, interrogated him and asked him, "Is this your house? Do you live here? Do you have proof? Show me ID." This is 11:30 at night, right before a school morning, right? His daughters were 7 and 9-years-old. "Wake them up. Get them out of bed. Bring them down here." They're interrogating his single-digit-age children at 11:30 at night over an iPhone that is not in this house.

And he just talked about how he knew that if he at any moment showed any resistance, asked too many questions of the police, he could lose his life. Not only that, but in front of his children.

And he just talked about how he knew that if he at any moment showed any resistance, asked too many questions of the police, he could lose his life. Not only that, but in front of his children.

And so it shook me up. And I've heard dozens and dozens and hundreds of stories. But this one shook me up because he talked about sharing it with some other co-workers and they said, "If that had been me I would never have let them do blah, blah, blah." And that was a very good example of white privilege.

He did not have the luxury of hoping they would not attack him if he showed indignation. He had to comply - as people always say, "Why didn't you comply?" - he complied with everything they did, and in the course of that allowed his children to be traumatized because it was the lesser of a potentially more traumatizing event. And he has to live with that. And they have to live with that, you know?

And it's things like that that don't make the news. And so no one knew this until he talked about it. And that's what we've been doing with those conversations is letting people know that the things that you see on the news is just the tip of the iceberg.

David Weisenfeld: Yeah, unfortunately the Breonna Taylor story where the police came into the apartment with the guns blazing didn't have that kind of an ending, so that's kind of a good segue to my next question, which is are you concerned that the further we get removed from what happened with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and others, that these conversations might fade? Or do you see this time that we're in as a real turning point? [0:14:01.6]

Joy Stephens: The answer is yes to both. Inevitably in our society there's going to be something new that grabs our attention, or we will revert our attention back to something else. And it's entirely possible. But I do think that we have a chance at this moment to make lasting change. And so it's more than what we consider performances, events, paint the street black with Black Lives Matter, or change your profile picture on Instagram or whatever.

Those are nice but systemic change, you know, changing the rules, adjusting the laws, making sure the laws that are there are applied equally, that's stuff that even if we take our eye off of the events that led to this, even if that changes, if we make changes in the system while we have everyone's attention, then it'll be there in perpetuity. So that's what I'm hoping for is to see, especially since this is an election cycle year, to see elected officials at the local level take these changes and implement them and make some serious steps forward.

David Weisenfeld: Joy, do world events come up in your sessions, like athletes kneeling for the national anthem, which of course is a very big issue now, where there might be differing perspectives for sure come up much? Or do you mainly focus on the biases that employees might face in their everyday work day? [0:15:26.5]

Joy Stephens: This is a good question. We have had a couple of discussions around, you know, the kneeling and misunderstanding what that was for and how there are a lot of athletes now that are using their voice. And in actuality what I explain to people is humans, they have a very short attention span and a very short memory.

If you think about the Olympians who first raised their fist, and that was 60 years ago. If you think about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who very famously changed his name while he was in professional basketball. He caught a lot of flack for that. And Muhammed Ali famously caught a lot of flak. His title was snatched away because of his political views and his stance on racism. So athletes speaking their mind is not new. And unfortunately the reaction of the majority to those athletes also is not new.

But I do like that, as opposed to someone like Muhammad Ali that went decades with no recognition of the value of what he was saying, we're seeing people already saying Kaepernick had a point just a few short years later. So again I'm hoping that the things we're seeing now stick and have a little bit more permanent effect on the way we treat each other in society.

David Weisenfeld: It's amazing because those two sprinters you mentioned, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, had their careers ruined after the Olympics, and all these years later you have Kaepernick who can't get a job. So it's certainly been an interesting time with that.

Joy, shifting gears, conversations are great, of course, but hiring and promotions are nothing to sneeze at either. So do you hope that this period will really open the eyes of corporate leaders more to the importance of diversity and inclusion programs that in the past, especially at a time of budget-cutting like what we're seeing now with Covid-19? [0:17:16.8]

Joy Stephens: I've always seen it as important, but I see it as especially make-or-break at this point because employees and potential employees are watching to see what different companies do, how they react. Ironically I had a friend of mine who was interviewing with a company today. She texted me last night. She goes, "How do you tactfully ask someone why they don't have any black people on their leadership team?" And I gave her some good questions to ask, leaning towards diversity strategy etc.

But that's a very real concern for her on whether or not she accepts any offer that they may have is, "What are you doing and what will you continue to do to promote not any sort of extravagant diversity showing, but just to bring equity to the map?" If black people make up 10 or 11% of the country, why don't they make up 10 or 11% of the management force, 10 or 11% of the leadership team? And so that's what we are looking for, and not from a quota standpoint but just from a consideration standpoint.

Examine your own biases. If you have a very all white, male executive board, ask yourself why. And then as those people inevitably retire, cycle out etc., how are you going to replace them? How can you increase representation? I think that's something that everyone can work on. And I think now we have a chance where people recognize that that is a real and valid issue and not just something for show. I think that's the biggest difference is diversity is no longer an expendable line item anymore.

David Weisenfeld: Well Joy, in our final minute or two, is there a last thought that you'd like to leave with our audience of HR professionals that we haven't touched on yet? [0:18:55.1]

Joy Stephens: Yeah. I think that this conversation has been great, and I think that I want to continue to see companies challenge themselves to talk about these tough issues. But I also want to remind everyone, especially in the HR world, that these tough issues again are not black and white. There are considerations for differently abled, for people with different social cues, issues, you know, like are they on the autism spectrum, people that are non-binary, people in the LGBTQ community. All of them have a history, all of them have a sense of not belonging to the majority in a workspace. All of them suffer from micro-aggressions.

And the way that we are treating the Black Lives Matter movement at the moment with special consideration and really putting a magnifying glass on it, all of them need that same attention. It's hard to do all at the same time, but it doesn't mean the work doesn't need to be done. So I would love to see these type of conversations expand to include all marginalized groups at some point.

David Weisenfeld: That's a great point to end on, and in fact it's probably a great time for that with those groups, and you noted LGBT workers, and with the Supreme Court's ruling just last month, that was a blockbuster one, and it certainly opens a number of doors that weren't open before.

Well Joy Stephens is a corporate culture consultant with New Heights Academic and Leadership Consulting, and she regularly advises companies on diversity and inclusion issues. Joy, thanks so much for sharing your insights. [0:20:24.3]

Joy Stephens: You are very welcome, and I appreciate the opportunity. And I love what you guys are doing.

David Weisenfeld: I'm David Weisenfeld. Continue checking our website regularly for more podcasts affecting the workplace, including How Employers Should Respond To The George Floyd Aftermath and LGBT Workers Win a Landmark Supreme Court Ruling.

The opinions expressed in this program do not represent legal advice, nor should they necessarily be taken as the views of XpertHR or its employees. XpertHR.com is published by Reed Business Information, and is proudly partnered with LexisNexis.

For more information about XpertHR, our subscription offering, or our 50-state Employee Handbook, call us toll free at 1-855-973-7847.