Speak to most BAME employees in the UK and they will have a story where they have felt excluded from their workplace because of a comment from a colleague.
“Where are you actually from?"
"You've got great hair; can I touch it?"
"Sorry, I thought you were working in security."
Comments such as these may not necessarily come from a place of malice but they still hurt. This presents a dilemma for some BAME employees – call out such microaggressions and help to build a more inclusive culture? Or smile politely and not hinder your progress in the company, which in turn puts you in a position to make lasting change.
The truth is that this shouldn't be a trade-off. Employees should feel empowered to challenge. They should also feel comfortable being challenged. That requires a culture where constructive challenge is embraced as part of being inclusive.
The big question is how. For many, this type of culture change will be difficult. There's often a fear of causing offence and being reprimanded for doing so. I've often had conversations with allies who feel that they lack the authority and vocabulary to discuss race and as a result, fear recriminations.
This is especially true with the rise of “cancel culture” – where the reputational costs of saying something problematic can result in public exclusion. This is evidenced by that moment of hesitation before uttering the words BAME or black or person or the awkward silence when someone around the table suggests that a course of action might have a disproportionate effect on racial minorities. This must change.
Barack Obama recently spoke out against elements of cancel culture saying: “I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of: ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people. Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn't do something right or used the wrong verb then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, cause, “Man, you see how woke I was, I called you out.’”
Obama's comments caused considerable controversy among equality activists though he raises a valid point. Challenging behaviour should be done in a way that persuades rather than alienates.
What can companies do to foster this culture? It goes without saying that leaders must set an example. This includes being explicit about welcoming constructive challenge. Companies should also invest in communication training for their employees. A culture of constructive challenge is established by employees feeling confident in expressing their views; sometimes that might mean talking truth to power. But such challenges need to be framed in ways that maximise the chance of those conversations leading to real change rather than unhelpful conflict.
A culture of constructive challenge is also reliant on employees listening to challenges on their use of language and behaviour and communicating back to their colleagues in a way that drives the conversation forward. These skills may not come naturally but can be taught.
As tough as it might be for some, progress cannot happen, unless employees – of all backgrounds – have the tools and the spaces to understand and discuss race with each other at work. It's a key part of inclusion. It also avoids the all-too-frequent scenario of that sole BAME person in the room feeling that they must be the single voice and authority on all matters to do with race. Talking about this issue is everybody's business.