To fight racism in the workplace, we need to stop treating certain topics as ‘taboo’ (opinion)

As the leader of a global retail organization and as a black man living in America, I’ve been vocal with my team about how it is incredibly important that the conversations we’ve been having as a society start taking place in our office. Encouraging these powerful discussions and creating opportunities for them to occur will begin lifting the “taboo” associated with talking about race in a professional setting.

Many CEOs have put out statements or made pledges to better diversify their ranks in order to assure their stakeholders they’re committed to the fight against racism at home and abroad. Now it’s time to take it one step further. Business leaders have a critical role to play in ensuring this movement leads to real, lasting change. Here are some ways they can help do that:

There has always been this unspoken rule against talking about things like race, religion, politics, etc. at work. But in reality, there are ways to make the workplace (whether it is virtual or inside an office) one of the safest places to discuss these matters.

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A positive office culture fosters mutual respect among employees, which provides an opportunity to shine a light on different people’s viewpoints through productive discussions as opposed to heated debates. Allowing people to share how they feel when, for instance, a colleague says something that may come across as insensitive, even if that is not the intent, will help employees better understand each other. This can be the catalyst for transformative behavior that will translate to life outside of work.

Of course, managers can’t force these conversations out of respect for employee privacy, and it may take time for some employees to feel comfortable openly discussing race, especially with their superiors. For this reason, partnering with a third-party organization can give your employees access to licensed professionals with whom they can speak to anonymously. We recently partnered with global health service company Cigna to create an opportunity for our team to either have face-to-face or over-the-phone counseling sessions to talk with a professional in total confidence about their thoughts and feelings in regard to race relations and police brutality.

Appoint a diversity lead

Doing our part to eradicate systemic racism and enhance diversity in the workplace is not an overnight assignment. It’s a long-term project that will require accountability, delegation and collaboration, just as any other major project would. And when an important project arises for your business, you assign an account manager to take the lead and see it through, basing their progress on measurable goals.

In this case, that project manager should be a diversity lead. Having a head of diversity in place ensures that the conversations related to how we can improve the workplace for our minority colleagues are not temporary topics, and that they result in meaningful action.

We recently added the role of Diversity Champion to our corporate management team. The responsibilities associated with this new position include spearheading workplace discussions about race relations and the value of diversity to our business, as well as implementing new programs and initiatives geared toward increasing diversity. We appointed the first individual to serve in this role, but moving forward, it will be an elected position that will be voted on annually. The Diversity Champion will always be an existing member of our team who will receive financial incentives for taking on the responsibility in addition to his/her current position.

Measuring the success of this role will be something we solidify a system for over time. Immediate expectations of the Diversity Champion include hosting regular meetings to facilitate these workplace discussions about race, introducing new initiatives geared toward diversifying hiring and developing programs that will allow our organization at-large to support the minority communities we serve in ways we never have before.

For example, our Diversity Champion is already working on creating a program that sponsors minority students. Giving these students jobs and mentorship will kickstart their careers at a young age. In time, we will measure the success of this particular program by the graduation rates of the schools where we implement the program and the effect on GPAs of the students we sponsor.

Ultimately, the biggest mistake a leader can make at a historic time like this is to do nothing. True change begins in the home, but can you imagine how much more impactful this movement would be if we were all committed to ensuring its place in the business world? For this reason, I urge all business leaders today to recognize the influence they have. I urge business leaders to use that influence to further this cause through facilitating powerful conversations that are anchored on the fiber that bonds us and to launch initiatives that will lend to discrediting hate in our communities.

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