Yes, you should talk about Ferguson at the office


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Gallup’s 2013 “State of the American Workplace” found that seven of 10 American employees are either disengaged (52 percent) or actively disengaged (18 percent) at work.

Yikes.

But what do engaged employees look like?

You probably have a pretty good idea. They care about their work and believe the organization cares about them. They care about — and feel a connection to — their team, co-workers and the organization as a whole. And they feel they can bring their whole selves to work, not just the part of them that does the work.

Which is why if you haven’t done so already, we think you should talk about Ferguson in your office.

Not in hushed voices at the water cooler. Not in the break room with people you know agree with you. Out in the open, with lots of voices, and dissenting opinions.

Conventional wisdom says you just don’t talk about money, sex, politics, religion or race at the office. Yet, according to the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2013 American Values Survey, of 100 friends, the average black American has 83 black friends, but only eight white friends. The average white American has 91 white friends, and only one black friend.

In other words, for many of us, work is the only place we engage with people different from us. That makes it the ideal place to talk about something as important as race.

At work, people with different skills, values, backgrounds, cultures and beliefs come together, working toward a common goal. In response to a topic as charged as Ferguson, your co-workers will almost certainly have a wide range of opinions, feelings and viewpoints.

It’s understandable if you’re a little reluctant to highlight those differences. But, in that anxiety lies opportunity.

If your employees are thinking about this issue, or others like it, such as the Eric Garner case in New York City (and trust us, they are), then convening a conversation about it sends a signal: We can talk openly about tough topics here.

It may also open a door to a more trusting workplace, where people feel they can listen and be heard. And creating a safe space to discuss a difficult topic lets people know it’s OK to bring their whole selves to work — even when what’s on their mind isn’t work.

Engaging workers this way also affirms their humanity. Sure, we may disagree on company strategy, and you may not like how I handled that sales problem last week. But engaging in a candid conversation about something so complex, with so many layers, helps people see beyond work squabbles and remember how layered and complex each of us is.

If you already have designated leadership around diversity and inclusion, then starting a conversation about Ferguson not only aligns with your institutional commitment, it shows that you mean it. Too often, inclusion is manifested more as policy than in practice. Talking about Ferguson means giving more than just lip service to the idea of inclusion.

How do you make these conversations an open, productive exchange rather than polite silence, or worse, an antagonistic argument?

First, find a facilitator with expertise in navigating complex social issues. If you have a diversity professional, perfect; if not, consider an outside facilitator. Work with your facilitator to set goals and ground rules.

Second, let people opt in. The goal is engagement, and a mandatory all-hands meeting only guarantees attendance. Even if turnout is low, just having the conversation sends a message across the organization.

Third, acknowledge that this is hard. Ask how power, gender and class dynamics might affect the discussion. Recognize that some people may attend to listen and observe, but won’t want to or won’t feel safe enough to share their perspectives.

Pay attention to power differences in the room; don’t expect a temporary worker to feel comfortable speaking her mind in front of a senior VP of staffing. Encourage people to talk about their experiences, and withhold judgment while listening to opposing viewpoints. Ask how people came to see things as they do, and seek to understand how someone might have a completely different perspective.

Perhaps most importantly, don’t expect to reach a resolution. You’re starting a larger conversation, not attempting to end one.

If you see the value in having a dialogue like this, but feel a little anxious about it, that’s OK. We aren’t saying it’s easy. We are saying that inviting your employees to bring their whole selves to work — even if it means having uncomfortable conversations — is worth it.

Eric Ratinoff, principal of The Mouse and the Elephant, can be reached at eric@mouseandelephant.com. Loretta L.C. Brady, an associate professor of psychology at Saint Anselm College and principal of BDS Insight, can be reached at loretta@bdsinsight.com. Learn more about diversity and inclusion by connecting with A Seat at the Table on Facebook.

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