Build an Anti-Racist Workplace Culture

Part 1
4 Questions to Evaluate Your Workplace Culture

“Our country is in trouble and the basic reason is race.” These were the words of San Antonio Spurs basketball coach Gregg Popovich when asked about the recent death of George Floyd. The deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and many others have dramatically heightened awareness about racial bias and inequality and raised the conversation on this topic to the international level. Additionally, the United States has seen an uptick in national origin-related hostilities related to COVID-19. These are powerful reminders that there is still much work ahead to both address and prevent harassment and discrimination.

How to Start Building an Anti-Racist Workplace Culture

So how do we effectively navigate through these challenging times? Put simply, leaders must commit to spending significantly more time listening versus speaking to internal and external stakeholders. They should seek out opinions from those who hold radically opposing viewpoints on how they experience the organization in which they jointly exist. Only through listening aggressively and thoughtful dialogue on sometimes uncomfortable questions can leaders decide which changes to an organization’s workplace culture should be made – and which should not.

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And while the call for changes inside and outside the workplace is both large and urgent, leaders must avoid the temptation to “Just Do It.” The short-term gratification of creating a laundry list of training programs, executive coaching engagements and focus group sessions must be replaced by a longer-term commitment and laser-like focus on inclusive leadership and what the organization stands for. Only by taking a step back and working through a series of critical questions alongside those most vulnerable to harassment and discrimination can the organization improve.

This post is the first in a series of blog posts where we’ll explore key questions leaders must ask both themselves and members of the various teams they support. These questions are not meant to be a silver bullet for immediate success. Rather, they are questions I’ve found myself asking whenever confronted with a situation that is both extremely complicated and demands immediate attention.

Through a series of thoughtful discussions focused around these questions, both individuals and teams will find themselves much better equipped to target exactly what proactive steps need to be taken to reduce incidents of harassment and discrimination in the workplace and build an anti-racist workplace culture. In addition, they will gain keen insight into where their investments of time, money and personal energy will have the most impact.

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Question #1 – Does our workplace culture encourage leaders to “be right” or “be effective?”

Workplace culture can be defined to be the set of behaviors an organization practices repeatedly – because they work. “Why do we do things the way we do? or “Why do we have who we have on our team?” Leadership often takes refuge in statements about workplace culture which on the surface seem to be “right” but which, upon reflection, cannot withstand scrutiny.

Some of the most often cited examples of leaders focusing on the need to “be right” versus “be effective” can be found in statements like these:

  • “Our roles require a highly unique set of specialized skills, ones that are very hard to find in the overall job market. We simply can’t find enough qualified minority or female candidates for these roles.”
  • “Many of our positions require an advanced degree and we just don’t see enough women and minorities who have this formal level of education.”
  • “We only hire from the best. From the best schools. From the best competitors. From the best industries. But we also screen for organizational fit. Those that are lucky enough to be hired by us need to adjust to our culture – or leave.”
  • “People simply don’t understand the pressure we’re operating under at our organization. We need to get people in here who can hit the ground running and who know how to tough it out. We just don’t have time to deal with all this ‘touchy feely’ stuff.”

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The Achilles heel of these beliefs is that organizational leaders and supervisors are often under-trained on the best way to get things done through others and therefore tend to over-supervise, focusing their energy on the “what” instead of on the “how.” Put more bluntly, they often just don’t know what matters to the people on their team – both professionally and personally – because they’ve never asked. This can result in both intentional and unintentional harassment, discrimination, and systemic racism because leaders were simply not aware of the impact of their behaviors and actions.

Lastly, in their quest to deliver results, leaders sometimes turn a blind eye to how they may be complicit in supporting discrimination and harassment, choosing to take an approach of “I don’t see color or gender.” Unfortunately, this approach can often result in the leader alienating members of the team because they have chosen to not become aware of an individual or group’s unique needs. As one great former leader shared with me, “Steve, if you don’t see color or gender or nationality, you don’t know who’s on your team.” His point was spot on. Rather than believing leaders should be “color blind” his advice to me was exactly the opposite. Learn about what matters to the people on your team – their motivators, their desires, their sensitivities. Only by doing so can you truly be their champion as well as guardian when it comes to issues of harassment or discrimination.

To better understand how the question of “right or effective” might be impacting incidents of harassment or discrimination in your organization, consider asking these follow-up questions:

  1. What’s one thing senior leadership is doing that makes you feel better or worse about your future here?
  2. What’s one thing you wish your boss knew about your job?
  3. What’s the one thing you wish your peers knew about you?

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Building an anti-racist workplace culture takes inclusive leadership and proper training. EVERFI’s workplace culture training courses allow 1,200+ companies to deliver the right training, at the right time, to the right learner.