How to Talk About Race, Gender and Social Issues at Work

Updated 19 August 2023

When approaching conversations about racial bias, gender and social issues, it can be challenging to know what to say, and when and how to say it. It can also feel uncomfortable and risky to confront difficult conversations at work where we are used to maintaining some level of reservedness associated with professionalism.

However, studies show that a lack of open communication at work (and the absence of support from employers and managers to facilitate honest dialogue) can lead to a toxic culture and an increased desire to find a new workplace. In contrast, a study conducted by the New York Center for Talent Innovation found that professionals who felt comfortable discussing race relations at work also felt freer to express their views and opinions, more welcomed and included on their team and that their ideas were heard and recognised.

It’s clear that we can all benefit from participating in open and respectful conversations at work about important issues. In this article, we share suggestions and five guides to help you approach difficult conversations at work whether you’re a business leader, HR manager, or individual contributor.

Related: How to Create a Positive Culture in the Workplace in 7 Steps

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Resources for learning how to have difficult conversations at work

Intersectionality is the theory that each of us carries a unique identity based on social and political markers, such as our race, gender identification and sexual orientation, that impacts how we live and work.

For example, a report published by Catalyst – a global nonprofit dedicated to pioneering research and practical tools to build better workplaces – states, '20% of LGBTQ Americans have experienced discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity when applying for jobs'. The Catalyst research also shows that LGBTQ people of colour are 19% more likely to experience this type of discrimination than white LGBTQ people. This is one of many examples of a unique intersectional experience and marginalisation.

It takes an understanding of one another’s life experiences to create a workplace environment where diversity, inclusion and belonging can thrive. Engaging in healthy, respectful conversation is an important tool for making progress toward understanding the people around you.

It’s important to note that having productive conversations about race, gender and social issues doesn’t happen overnight, and success doesn’t always come after one single effort or discussion. It’s regularly regarded as a process – a lifelong journey – that takes personal reflection, identifying and correcting missteps and perpetual learning.

Listen and learn

Education is a necessary foundation for a productive conversation. A few first steps are building self-awareness, acknowledging conscious/unconscious bias and learning about the experiences of marginalised, underrepresented groups.

You might hear the phrase 'it’s not a marginalised person’s duty to educate you'. Individuals who belong to a marginalised community often already carry social, economic and emotional burdens. Asking them to take on the additional responsibility of an educator is typically unnecessary. Consider using reliable and fact-based internet or library resources to gather knowledge rather than asking someone to teach you about their history or the systemic struggles of their community. This kind of research and self-education shows conversation participants that you took the time to try to understand their experience.

Explore these free virtual courses about diversity and inclusion in the workplace that cover various identification groups and broader concepts like bias and discrimination.

You should also speak with your employer to understand what resources they’ve made available, including webinars, professional panel discussions or Q&A sessions. One example is a video series that Indeed’s senior leadership distributes called Here to Help which includes conversations about how COVID-19 has affected the Black community and highlighted existing racial and political tensions, caused discrimination toward the Asian community and altered the company’s annual recognition of the LGBTQIA+ community during Pride month. Resources from your employer will help you make decisions about holding diversity and inclusion conversations specific to your workplace.


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Identify the appropriate method of conversation

There are a variety of ways to approach conversations about intersectionalities among colleagues, and the appropriate method may depend on your particular situation at work. When choosing a style of communication, venue and who to involve, it's important to take the subject matter and audience into account.

As an HR manager, you might hold a team meeting to confirm your support of a particular group, acknowledge your stance against discrimination and guide a group discussion or offer office hours for private follow-up conversations. In this case, it’s important to emphasise the need to create a safe space where no one on the team is forced or coerced into participating. Another reason you might address your team is to share your own personal story, especially if you’re experiencing situational grief or trauma. It's also critically important to back up your words with action. Simply stating a certain stance is not enough to support impactful change.

An individual’s effort to approach difficult conversations may seem to require less organisation of resources, but it should still be thoughtfully considered. You might feel comfortable engaging in a discussion that occurs organically if you’ve taken the time to self-educate or you identify with the group that is being discussed. If you encounter a difficult conversation at work but you aren’t comfortable speaking or don’t feel prepared at the moment it occurs, that’s okay. Instead, you may try scheduling time with the other participant(s) for a future date so you have time to gather your thoughts, or you can request to set up a conversation that involves your Human Resources representative.

Here are two example resources that can help you prepare for having conversations about race at work:

  • How to Talk About Race In the Workplace, Aljazeera: In this article, award-winning financial journalist Stacey Tisdale, who also focuses on socioeconomic issues like gender and race, writes about why it is important for businesses to welcome and facilitate healthy conversations about race in the workplace. She covers common mistakes organisations make when trying to build an inclusive corporate culture and offers big-picture ideas for how companies can create better environments for all of their employees.

  • Racial Healing Conversation Guide, The Heal Our Communities organisation acknowledges that many people want to discuss the impact of racism and the need for racial healing, but don’t know where to start. You might worry that others won’t understand your point of view or that what you say may be offensive to others. This guide from the 2019 National Day of Healing outlines specific ways to begin conversations about racism, racial equity and racial healing with colleagues, friends, family and neighbours with example conversation starters.

Related: Leading a Team Through a Social Justice Crisis

Steps to have a difficult conversation at work

In this section, we’ll focus on ways to find success during a difficult conversation between individuals or within team groups.

1. Establish good intent

Before the conversation begins, it’s important that both parties commit to the intention of better understanding and respecting one another. Explicitly sharing this goal can make it easier to work past inevitable disagreements or misunderstandings. Establishing trust in this way can also ease our fear of being wrong. It’s okay to be wrong – what’s important is that we try to have discussions and learn from the mistakes we make.

Related: How to Build Trust in the Workplace (And Why It's Important)

2. Embrace discomfort

It’s also okay if you feel uncomfortable (frankly, it’s expected). Leaving your comfort zone by choice may not come naturally to you, but it is part of this process – growth typically isn’t comfortable, regardless of your identity. For those who don’t identify with a marginalised group, this can be a good opportunity to practise empathy with communities that experience discrimination and discomfort regularly as they navigate a world that’s hypercritical of them.

3. Avoid shaming

Allow others to show up as their true selves and invite vulnerability. If someone feels judged or shamed, their focus may shift from sharing and understanding to self-preservation which presents a conversation barrier. Instead, try to speak authentically and encourage the honesty of participants to set you on a better path toward understanding one another.

Related: 14 Ways to Be Your Authentic Self in the Workplace

4. See the individual

Avoid generalising others or assigning stereotypes. Generalisations and stereotypes are hurtful to marginalised groups and they interfere with our ability to see an individual, hear their personal story and learn about their unique life experiences. Rather than assign broad or basic (and often offensive) attributes to someone, remember that human experiences and our individual characteristics are complex.

5. Ask questions

Counteract any judgment you might feel and show your commitment to the goal of understanding by asking questions. For example, instead of saying that you don’t believe racial bias is real (which is dismissive of others’ experiences), you might ask someone if they have ever experienced or witnessed racially biased behaviour, and, if so, what it looked like or how it was communicated. Or, if you are on the receiving end of a hurtful comment, remember your shared goal, be honest about how you’ve perceived their comment and ask the speaker to clarify what they meant.

6. Encourage storytelling

It can be challenging to connect in a meaningful way with hypothetical scenarios or general definitions of terms like 'gender discrimination'. However, stories about personal experiences can often help us find a deeper level of understanding. For instance, if you listen to a real-life example of a time someone was discriminated against because of their gender identity and how it made them feel, it can help you imagine a different reality than your own and better empathise with the speaker.

7. Listen to learn

This is a good time to apply the saying, 'Listen with the intent to learn, not the intent to reply'. It can be tempting to start forming your response to someone while they’re speaking but doing so may prevent you from fully listening to the other person and could result in misunderstanding. If you catch yourself thinking about what you’re going to say next, take a moment to refocus on the speaker so you can thoroughly process what they’re sharing. Begin formulating your response only after they finish speaking – it’s ok to have some quiet moments while you prepare.

8. Find the similarities

Try to avoid focusing on how others differ from you which can distract from the goal of understanding one another. As Ashante Fray states in her Here to Help video, 'Recognise pieces of yourself in other people. You may not understand exactly what the other person is talking about or what it means to be them, but you might understand the feeling of being small, anxious, feeling stressed or like you can’t be yourself. Those emotions, that kind of compassion and empathy, can help you understand and connect'.

9. Examine yourself

During and after the conversation, it’s important to take note of your emotions and examine your attitude. If you have a strong reaction to someone or an idea, positive or negative, take some time to reflect on why those feelings came up for you and what self-work may be helpful as a result. You might also ask yourself what you can do to grow, heal or remove unconscious bias to benefit your conversations in the future.


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10. Repeat, act, and amplify

You won’t have all the answers to questions that arise during a difficult conversation at work or you might feel overwhelmed and need to break from a discussion. It’s okay – and it can be productive – to revisit the conversation. You might assign yourself and participants follow-up action items such as a topic to research, a video to watch or a podcast to listen to. Finally, take some time to process what you learned from your conversation, share it with your community to amplify marginalised voices and speak about your experiences beyond the present moment.

Here are two resources that further explore difficult conversations, the first through an infographic guide to navigating discussion blockers and the second through a personal success story:

  • Overcoming Conversation Roadblocks, Catalyst: This infographic explains how you can identify and overcome obstacles to having difficult conversations at work about gender, racial bias or social issues. A roadblock might be, for example, fear of saying something hurtful or the struggle to fully grasp your colleagues’ experiences. The guide also offers specific advice on how to address roadblocks and ways you might start to integrate certain topics into conversations.

  • 3 steps to having difficult – but necessary – conversations, This is one post in a 'How to be a better human' series with tips that outline how the author, Adar Cohen, a conflict resolution expert, found success in having difficult conversations at work by leaning into conflict, adopting humility and embracing silence to make room for listening.

'It’s easy to forget how much impact kindness, compassion and empathy can have', says Howard Shin, Global Product Commercialisation Lead and Co-Chair of the Asian Network at Indeed, in his Here to Help video. Finding ways to lead with compassion and empathy amid conflict may help us begin or continue to have difficult but productive conversations at work.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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