Words Matter When Discussing Race in the Office: The E&C Pulse

November 11, 2020
Ben DiPietro

It’s not easy to talk about race, equality, and justice issues in the office, but for all the demonstrations around the world after a year of police shootings of Black people to matter, conversations must move from the street to homes, businesses, and between people who may not see things the same way.

The difficulty in conducing such necessary discussions places an added importance on the words that are used. Because of the sensitivities involved, people understandably may be uncomfortable, and afraid something they say may be misconstrued. Companies may feel skittish entering into these types of conversations.

I moderated a webinar last week on “Race in the Office: E&C’s Time to Champion Diversity, Equity, Inclusion,” featuring Terry Stringer of HP, and Antonio Fernandez of PSEG, where we talked about how to approach these conversations.

Soon after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, HP held a town hall meeting with employees in which the company’s chief executive opened the session by saying “Black Lives Matter,” said Stringer.

“That’s part of that transparency, that vulnerability,” she said. “I think it went a long way to help the Black employees, who at that point in time were feeling very emotional. To hear our CEO and other leaders say those words was an important opening.”

Even the fact of holding this panel discussion is a sign of how much progress is being made, especially in light of previous moments where it seemed as though people were really passionate and committed to making change, but the momentum fizzled away. It feels different this time, said Stringer, head of HP’s Office of Ethics.

“I’ve been in ethics and compliance for many many years, I have never been in an ethics and compliance conference or in discussions with professionals across organizations, or even around the globe, where there have been open discussions about race,” she said. “I think it happens by being able to speak words such as Black Lives Matter. … I think saying the words is important because it gets at the feeling behind them.”

Still, she said there needs to be a seat at the table for people with alternative views, or else there is no chance to help them see their unconscious bias, or their privilege in a situation. 

“If we shut them out and make them feel they can’t express those viewpoints because it’s no longer politically correct and those viewpoints come from a place of not understanding their privilege, well they’re never going to understand their privilege if we never let them talk it out, if we all can’t sit down and have that discussion.” 

Fernandez, PSEG's chief compliance officer and chief privacy officer, said it’s important to remember you can’t always be the person to teach the lesson, as that can be tiring. He said he approaches these conversations by being human, and that in the course of the talk he may say something that might offend the other person, or say something they may not like.

“The ground rules for conversations like that is we’re both going to listen with our hearts,” he said. “We need to assume positive intent because we’re both arriving at this conversation, and we’re both invested in something better than where we are today.”

That said, the workplace can be a risky place to talk about some of these things, so it’s all about setting boundaries and guardrails at the beginning of a conversation so people know what the rules are, he said. 

“I will never accept someone being disrespectful, or unprofessional; I will end a conversation if someone is yelling at me,” said Fernandez. “There are certain things that now, in my mid-40s, I may have tolerated as a more junior person, but now, you know the most important thing I have in my life is my time, and I’m not going to waste it with somebody that’s not invested in having a good, positive, productive conversation.”

                                                                                                        BEN DIPIETRO


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About the Author

Ben DiPietro

Joined LRN in October 2018 after 30 years as a journalist, including seven years at The Wall Street Journal, including Risk & Compliance Journal and was a creator of the WSJ Crisis of the Week column. In 2015 was named one of the 100 most influential people in business ethics by Ethisphere Institute. Spent 14 years as a reporter in Hawaii, 11 with The Associated Press.

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