So, you want to talk about racism at work?


Over the past several months, an unprecedented number of organizations have released public statements condemning racism and promising action in support of Black Lives Matter and social justice. Moreover, a large number of companies have committed to addressing racism within their own communities and organizations. Some have pledged to make changes to organizational culture, in addition to introducing more equitable policies and practices. While others have hired or started recruiting someone in an internal role explicitly dedicated to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). 

Whether or not your organization has made a public commitment, you may be wondering, “Should my team be engaged in more conversations about race and racism?” And if so, “How do I make those conversations productive?” Regardless of your organization’s starting point, we wish to applaud and support those organizations that have committed to greater corporate responsibility and social justice. We remain hopeful as more and more companies begin to address racial injustices for the very first time. At the same time, at YW Boston we recognize that racism and other oppressive systems are institutionalized. That makes racism within organizations difficult to dismantle, especially when modern-day standards of “professionalism” have encouraged employees not to talk about racism in order to maintain the status quo. And so, racial equity requires long-term commitment and hard work.

As YW Boston continues to partner with companies looking to create lasting organizational change and improve their workplace cultures, we would like to share a few considerations that can help organizations hoping to address racism for the very first time. If you’re an employee or individual wanting to support greater racial equity, check out our piece “How to take action against racism right now” to find different ways to advocate for change in your workplace or community.

Before engaging in org-wide conversations, consider who you are reaching out to and why 

Many interventions start with internal conversation amongst the company’s executive team, followed by the identification of strengths and growth areas that then lead to action planning. This approach seems practical—identify a problem, assess the problem, identify a solution, implement the solution. When thinking about organizational change through a racial equity lens, additional considerations and more careful planning are necessary in order to prevent exacerbation or perpetuation of the challenges you are trying to address.

Instead, utilize a different framing when your organization is in these early stages of the conversation. It is important to assess your organization’s intentions, current impact, and intended future impact. 

  • Intentions: Ask yourselves, “why does my organization want to address racism and engage in DEI work?” Are you responding to external pressure from your stakeholders, clients, or competitors? Are you responding to internal employee feedback? Are you reacting to a national crisis? Are you hoping to improve and evolve organizational values? 
  • Impact: There is a difference between our intentions, aspirations, and how we want to be perceived vs. the impact of our action/inaction and the harm we may be causing or allowing to continue. Racism is not just an ideology or prejudice, it is currently and has been historically embedded into institutions and systems that impact our workplace and employees, such as housing, education, healthcare, technology, and more. For that reason, it is not just unlikely, but impossible that racism does not play a part in our society, including our workplaces. It’s important that we don’t assume our organizations are exempt from racism, otherwise, we can miss its impact on employees, stakeholders, and the organization’s bottom line.
  • Intended impact: As you learn more, your intended impact may also evolve. What is the change you wish to achieve? What does “success” look like and for whom? Who will be involved and be held accountable for this work? What outcomes do you wish to achieve? All of these questions will inform your action planning and decision making. It is important to consider here the relationship between intentions and impact. For example, you may intend to improve organizational culture by launching new DEI initiatives but end up overtaxing employees of color by asking them to lead or contribute to this work when it is not part of their job description. In other cases, conversations about racism may cause more harm if your facilitators do not have sufficient experience leading conversations through stress and trauma

Do the pre-work: Understanding history, contextualizing within your organization, and building skills are crucial to action-planning 

As part of InclusionBoston, YW Boston guides organizations through a discovery and assessment process. YW Boston staff meet with a liaison to answer questions, gather context, and identify the needs of the organization. Using this information, our team tailors our DEI services to help meet organizational goals and complement any existing equity and inclusion efforts. In addition to this, YW Boston facilitators provide historical context to supplement the necessary growth areas. A focus on personal introspection, active listening, relationship building, and development of shared language and frameworks is crucial to laying a strong foundation for action. However, context-setting should include historical knowledge of social systems in addition to knowledge about a specific organization’s history. By holding internal dialogues and listening deeply to what is generated during these conversations, organizations can discover what their own unique challenges and circumstances are, leading them to identify opportunities for growth and action. At YW Boston we structure our dialogue sessions by considering, 

1.     Who Am I? 

2.     Who Are We? 

3.     How Did We Get Here? 

4.     What Do I Do? 

5.     What Do We Do? 

Language matters: Consider how you talk about racism 

Your organization has done the pre-work and now feels ready to engage in a company-wide conversation about racism. When talking about racism at work, consider setting conversational norms and practices to guide how you want to spend this time together. At YW Boston we use the following meeting norms: 

  • Speak from the “I” position, rather than detaching from your perspective(“you”) or universalizing your perspective “we.” Help create a safer space for everyone to speak their truth by respecting different forms of expression, honoring boundaries, and maintaining confidentiality. 
  • Lean into discomfort and into each other. By design, authentic dialogue challenges participants. 
  • Seek intentional learning, not perfection. Change does not happen through a linear, discrete process of moving from “not knowing” to “knowing.” 
  • Take space, make space. Be mindful of any privileged identities you may hold and help to create environments for everyone to contribute. Speak up when you have something to share, but also create an environment for others to share. This can mean letting others speak even if you don’t get to share your view and being aware of the impact you are having on others’ ability to contribute. 

In addition to these norms, consider researching and incorporating anti-racist language and knowing the best terminology for the circumstance. For example, 

  • Talking about Racism (generally) vs. Anti-Blackness (specifically) 
  • Race vs. Ethnicity vs. Nationality 
  • Using the phrase “issues of race” vs. “issues of racism” 

For instance, in the case of “issues of race vs. issues of racism,” we want to emphasize the importance of acknowledging that people’s racial and ethnic identities are not the problem, but rather the persistent racism and prejudice that plagues our society. Creating a shared understanding of language will help your organization have clearer, more productive conversations. 

If you need support holding these conversations at your organization and wish to work towards a more inclusive and equitable workplace, click here to learn more about InclusionBoston or contact Sheera Bornstein at to learn more about our DEI Services. 


About InclusionBoston 

InclusionBoston advances diversity, equity, and inclusion by partnering with organizations looking for improved results. Using our advanced assessment tool and the latest research on behavioral and organizational change, we partner with organizations to create an action plan and provide them with the resources needed to drive lasting change. Our customized, evidence-based approach builds internal capacity and promotes cultural change while supporting organizations throughout their journey. YW Boston also offers one-day workshops where participants explore frameworks, develop knowledge, and engage in dialogue. 

Ready to unlock the power of diversity in the workplace? Click here to learn more about InclusionBoston and request your free consultation.