How to Talk about Race at Work


These are unprecedented times, a viral pandemic colliding with a large social uprising. Our normal, physically and emotionally, is being challenged while working fulltime. The psychological impact of these events and the way it carries over into the workplace cannot be overstated. Leaders seeking to create an inclusive environment must find ways to address these topics. What is called for is empathetic support, with conversations guided by the core values that companies adopt and promote but are at times challenging to live out. A neutral leadership style is not very helpful during a crisis. Leaders must assess their personal beliefs and feelings first and then expand beyond them. The most effective leaders find ways to support employees who have perspectives that differ from their own.


First, personally as a leader, perform the following proven methods to deal with and manage your own biases:

  • Frame your biases: Everyone has biases; no one is immune to them. Admit them and own them. Your own growth cannot start until you admit them to yourself honestly and then start to pay attention and be more conscious.
  • Challenge your biases: Do you notice when your biases creep into your thoughts and inner dialogue. Do you discount them when you do notice them? Do your biases match who you really are as a person?
  • Set your biases aside: Start fresh – today! Now that you are more aware, specific people will come to mind for you; people that you know you should ‘set your bias aside’ for. Plus, as you’re thinking of doing this for others, I’m sure you would hope and expect others would do it for you, as well. We all need grace.


Second and most important, take meaningful action! Statements from the top are invaluable but anyone, at any level of the organization, can take small steps to exercise greater compassion and initiate action that provides needed support and promotes racial justice for Black workers as well as others who are marginalized. Here’s how:

  • Acknowledgment:
    • It’s important to address the current events by using this moment to reiterate company values, and to take a stand against racism and police violence. Make it clear that you are committed to being an Equal Opportunity Employer promoting equality, justice and fair treatment for all.
    • Do the research to fully understand events, using data from reliable sources and take the initiative to search beyond social media.
    • Acknowledgement isn’t just some quick, impersonal announcement. If you don’t know what to say, educate yourself on facts about racism and injustice from reliable sources (there are plenty of available online).  Seek out support from your human resources team regarding diversity and inclusion.
  • Reduce work pressure
    • Recognize the additional tolls; physically, mentally and emotionally, that these events have on your workers. Give them the space to be angry, afraid, confused or even disengaged from work.  Make time and be available to hear their concerns.
    • Suggestions of support:
      • Offer additional days of paid leave
      • Offer more flexibility in work schedules
      • Allow extensions on deadlines
      • Temporarily redistribute responsibilities based on each person’s capacity to contribute
      • Cancel or postpone non-urgent meetings 
  • Make space for discussion
    • Discuss, don’t debate, when driving open and honest dialogue leaders should emphasize that the purpose of getting together is discussion, not debate or disagreement.
    • Honor feedback and affirm. People are looking for leaders to affirm their right to feel safe and help them feel protected. Affirmation can start with creating a safe environment where all employees can have an open discussion about issues that are of concern.  This can happen in a large group setting, or by having individual meetings with each team member.
    • As a manager, it’s not just your job to lead these conversations. Participating and being vulnerable  is important to drive home the fact you, too, care about these issues. Support your community beyond the workplace.
    • While employees value internal support, the actions you take outside of the workplace can have a powerful impact. So think about how you can contribute in your local communities in ways that will push for positive changes.  What can you and your organization do in your community? What would promote equity and justice and activate meaningful change?

In summary, be respectful and use your empathy muscle! HR On-Call can play a crucial role in maintaining a respectful workplace and facilitating healthy office conversations.  Please reach out if we can help with discussions or provide training on these sensitive subjects.    



Susan Arnold
HR On-Call, LLC
p. 515.401.2233
e .

A little more about us: Susan Arnold, owner and lead HR Consultant at HR On-Call, LLC. Susan has 20+ years of HR experience and provides a HR presence to business organizations without the overhead expense of a full-time employee. Susan helps business owners improve employer/employee relationships and allows them to focus on their business while resting assured that they are in full compliance with state and federal law. Areas of expertise:

  • Reduce Employer Risk and Liability
  • Customized Employee Handbooks
  • Performance Reviews
  • Improve Employee/Employer Relationships
  • Background Checks
  • Personality Assessments
  • Guaranteed EEO Compliance
  • Employee Retention
  • Recruitment / Hiring
  • Employee Discipline/Discharge

Susan is passionate about her customers and listens to their needs. If you are interested in any of the details above or would like more information about her services, please contact Susan! If you have questions on how your specific policy should read or need help navigating a certain instance, contact HR On-Call, LLC

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