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There’s been a lot going on in our country lately. The events in Charlottesville have become the latest reminder that racial tensions still exist in America. And while leaders hope these controversies don’t carry over into the workplace, they can and often do affect employees’ performances.
In fact, a 2017 Gallup survey of more than 1,000 American adults found that 42 percent worry a great deal about race relations in the country. This is up from just 17 percent in 2014.
But what can leaders do to improve things? While discussing politics in the office can make some feel uncomfortable or afraid to speak openly, ignoring the issue can be equally harmful. After all, silence is part of the issue.
So, here’s how three experts recommend discussing race relations with employees:
Psychologically speaking, feeling discriminated against is a complex issue. According to Judy Rosenberg, a psychologist and the CEO of Psychological Healing Center in Los Angeles, what happens on a macro level trickles down to the micro level in the workplace.
“At times, corporations can behave like dysfunctional families and re-trigger old childhood and multi-cultural wounds,” Rosenberg said via email. “Core beliefs, such as ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m not important or valuable enough,’ may be triggered by current events and cause [employee] fears of being demoted or fired. This affects and hinders their productivity.”
Rosenberg believes that one of the worst things leaders can do is try to sweep things under the rug. That just makes employees from different backgrounds feel excluded. However, when they see a diverse workplace with others who are going through similar situations, they feel safe and comfortable.
Above all, employers should celebrate how the synergy of those differences makes the company even more successful.
“The key is in valuing the differences and appreciating what each employee brings to the corporate table,” Rosenberg said. “Employees have to feel that they are part of a bigger picture and that they are working toward a higher cause.”
“It would be a mistake to assume that the majority and minority groups have the same workplace challenges, perspectives and experiences, as these groups experience the workplace in much different ways,” Bryan Yackulic, assistant director of the Chartered Leadership Fellow at The American College of Financial Services in Bryn Mawr, Penn., said in an email.
Having different races, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations represented in a company is great. However, being diverse doesn’t equate to employees feeling accepted in the workplace. This only happens when a company also strives to be inclusive. Unfortunately, not everyone understands inclusivity.
“If the majority group does not see or acknowledge the issue, they will not see the need to address it,” said Yackulic. “To begin addressing this issue, leaders must focus on removing anything that is not fully inclusive. For example, a common incentive in sales organizations is golf trips. However, if an individual doesn’t play golf, they will not feel included.”
By looking at everything from benefits to engagement strategies, leaders can better determine if they appeal to all types of employees.
Sometimes the simplest way to make an employee feel safe and cared for at work is to ask them how he or she is doing. Don’t view controversial topics as taboo when an employee’s happiness is at stake.
“I am a white director at a technology company. I used to avoid talking about race relations at work,” Lisa Abbott, director of marketing at Wootric in San Francisco, noted in an email. “That has changed for me. I make an effort to speak one-on-one with my colleagues of color about national incidents that I know weigh more heavily on them than me.”
Then, she said, she listens to what they have to say without imposing her own perspective on what they are telling her.
“I’ve found that that gesture of empathy goes a long way toward building trust and humanity and reducing the level of anxiety in the workplace that can be created by national events,” Abbott said. “While I don’t have any metrics, this has improved my own job satisfaction, and I hope in a small way will help my company retain our talented, diverse team.”