The Business Case for Uncomfortable Workplace Conversations

*This article was originally featured in Colorado Biz, on July 7, 2020.

With national conversations around race relations and broader calls for social equity and justice filling the streets and the news, the results of a 2008 study of conflict in the workplace are worth revisiting. This study finds that among employees:

  • 85% experience workplace conflicts and spend over two hours per week dealing with conflict
  • 25% observe conflict escalation rising to personal insults/ attacks/ sickness/ absences
  • 62% believe everyone in the workplace needs to help manage conflict
  • 70% expect Leaders to be skilled at managing conflict

Today’s workplaces are not immune to the conversations taking place in American society; some of which may make some employees uncomfortable and even lead to conflict. With this in mind, is there a business case for having workplace conversations about racism and equity that may make some employees uncomfortable?

Engaging in conversations about workplace equity is optional; there is no law that mandates discussions about racial equity or gender equality. Arguably, it is a safer choice for many employers to avoid such potentially uncomfortable topics, and instead, keep heads down to focus on the business at hand. As such, why would an employer consider addressing such topics?

One risk of not having conversations about race and equity is that employer inaction sends a message to employees and external parties that it is “hunkering down”, avoiding external realities and resisting inevitable changes. Such a strategy may not serve many employers well. Employers who value innovative ideas and novel approaches to competitor challenges may find themselves at a disadvantage for recruiting and retaining skilled employees. Workforce demographics are becoming more diverse; applicants and employees will seek out workplaces where they are respected, valued, and treated as equals. Many, in fact, will be emboldened by the national conversation to ask employers to describe their efforts to actively create a diverse workplace community. They’ll be looking for evidence of such on social media and online platforms, including comments by staff on sites like Glassdoor. If there is no such evidence, many may seek employment elsewhere.

The same may be true for business partners and other stakeholders. Choosing to ignore and “let things blow over” will likely not sit well with those who are taking bold action and seek to align themselves with similar organizations.

This conversation may not be easy or feel safe for many employers and their employees. Engaging employees in discussions that may challenge personal beliefs and experiences of equity and history is daunting; advanced preparation and “ground rules” are necessary to maximize effectiveness and to minimize unproductive outcomes. Even so, some employees may disagree with these efforts and choose to leave a workplace undergoing such an effort. Similarly, external partners may also object and take their business elsewhere. NASCAR’s decision to exclude use of Confederate symbols is an example; at least one driver has quit, and some fans have objected. These are the costs of this strategy to acknowledge. It is noteworthy, too, that NASCAR is seeking to build a broader, more diverse fan base by making this decision.

However, leadership can define the business case for these uncomfortable conversations. Brave leaders “stick out their necks” to clearly signal their importance and value and connect these conversations to the organization’s goals and values. Leaders can model universal expectations of all employees on this front by confronting assumptions and stereotypes.

By actively listening to employees and engaging appropriate external parties, leaders can build an organizational culture that authentically values equity, diversity, and effective handling of conflicting viewpoints. Organizational resilience can be nurtured by such discussions and by listening to employees who have experienced racist behaviors in society and the workplace. As with any business initiative, leaders who clarify the business validity of facing and working through such discomfort, including the careful facilitation of productive conflict, can inspire hearts and minds to create more successful and effective workplaces for all employees.

As the 2008 survey suggests, employees are looking for leadership from the top, and most will accept their part in overcoming conflict to create a better workplace.