Why You Should Make Room for Uncomfortable Conversations in the Workplace

Are you passionate about starting a conversation in your workplace about diversity and inclusion (D&I), but you’re not quite sure where to start? Or maybe you’ve tried to start that conversation, but for some reason or another it’s fizzled out, raised eyebrows or gotten uncomfortable.

By now, it’s common knowledge that companies that prioritize gender and ethnic diversity outperform others by as much as 35 percent. But the reality of opening up a discussion about diversity topics can still seem out of reach for HR leaders and employees alike.

Today on the blog, we’re chatting with Michelle Kim, founder of Awaken, a leading interactive diversity, inclusion and equity workshop company, to find out how companies can make room for uncomfortable conversations in the workplace to develop inclusive leaders and teams.

Glassdoor: What’s your working definition of uncomfortable workplace conversations?

Michelle Kim: In terms of D&I, the conversations that make people uncomfortable are the ones that really get at people’s personal beliefs. When people start to feel like their way of thinking is being challenged, or their morals or goodness as a human is being questioned, that’s when they get really uncomfortable.

As a society, we’ve done a good job of letting people believe its black and white when it comes to racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. But when we get down to it, it’s a lot more complex than that. When we shed light on how many more people are complicit in creating exclusion and how it is perpetuated in our society and companies, people get uncomfortable.

In having those conversations as part of a D&I initiative, it takes a lot of compassion to be able to reach people where they are. We need to be able to have some empathy for the people who are just beginning their journey or folks who are just waking up to the reality others have been living in for a while,. We need to understand where they are and meet them with both compassion and criticality. Not just, “Yes, I understand where you’re coming from,” but, “Yes, I understand where you’re coming from and let’s reframe that to think about it in a different way.”

[Related: Why Now is the Time to Become LGBTQ Inclusive (And How To Do It)]

Glassdoor: Why do even the most proactive employees pull back from having these conversations?

Michelle Kim: People fear judgment, or that they won’t say the right things. There’s a genuine fear of asking questions surrounding these issues and coming off as ignorant. People are too scared to say things they have been thinking or ask the questions they’ve wanted to ask, just because there’s so much fear around how that will affect their reputation and way people perceive them. That fear is creating even more of a divide.

There is a huge amount of fear of repercussions around these conversations, and they aren’t false ones. There can be negative career and reputation repercussions for women or people of color who speak out about biases, and that is a real risk for many people. It takes courage and risk taking for people who experience bias or exclusion to raise these concerns and practice courage and bring issues to leadership or colleagues attention as it is for those colleagues to hear about it.

Negative repercussions can be perceived on both ends. From a company’s perspective, people fear they’re not supposed to be talking about this stuff. They have a preconceived notion of what is allowed or not allowed to be talked about in the workplace. Some people believe workplaces are strictly for tasks and job responsibilities, and it takes a little bit of stretching and reimagining to allow for these conversations to take place. But what leaders need to realize is that even if you’re not talking about these critical issues, they’re impacting the workplace — whether we acknowledge it or not.

Glassdoor: What are the two most important things management/leadership teams can do to create space for these conversations?

Michelle Kim: First, leaders need to understand that people are not going to come to them with questions or suggestions or concerns if they believe there’s any chance of negative repercussions. Even if people feel there are behaviors or cultural issues that need to be corrected, they will not bring it up if they fear being pegged as a troublemaker or think it will impact the way they are perceived as a high performer.

As leaders, we really need to examine how can we lower perceived risk of repercussions as well as actual repercussions to people who are courageously bringing up concerns.

Second, we need need to have the mindset that in order for these issues to be fixed, we have to have these uncomfortable conversations. No matter how many marketing slogans or progressive policies you implement, if the awareness isn’t there about why these issues are important and why certain processes have been changed, there won’t be great adoption or change in people’s behaviors. Embrace that it’s part of the journey.

At Awaken, we like to say that if you’re in a D&I workshop and you don’t feel uncomfortable once during that conversation, that’s probably a sign it’s not the right workshop.

Part of that is because it’s taken us years of our lifetime to learn and internalize problematic messages and centuries for society to replicate these systems and cultures — it’s going to take a little bit of time and effort to unlearn that stuff. It’s not going to happen within one workshop and it definitely won’t happen within a workshop that doesn’t challenge people to get uncomfortable and get deeper into their personal beliefs.

[Related: Struggling to Kick Off Diversity & Inclusion Efforts? Start With This Checklist]

Glassdoor: What are some of the most common well-intentioned but ineffective ways you see companies and employees trying to address or make space for these conversations?

Michelle Kim: There are two main inefficiencies I see in the current popular D&I initiatives.

First, many companies will try to implement a one-day seminar without any clear expectations or goals. A workshop well done can do a ton of good. In fact, a well-facilitated conversation could pave the way to longer-term strategies and conversations, policy changes and additional programming, and could build the desire for people to engage or push the initiative forward. We’ve seen that happen after one conversation. But you can’t expect that one workshop to be the start and endpoint.

We see workshops as the beginning of the journey — they set the right tone and get people motivated to do more, but the real work starts after the workshop. Having that expectation and mindset is important. Think about how inclusion education fits into the broader D&I strategy as well as any existing Learning & Development (L&D) programs at the company. Integrate inclusion in every aspect of L&D and institutional processes to make it a part of the business operation, rather than a one-off extracurricular event.

The second common mistake companies make is overburdening underrepresented people in their workplaces to do these types of hard work. Asking someone to lead a D&I committee (unless that person enthusiastically consented) can tokenize them and overburden them on top of their day job without support.

There’s also a ton of reputational risk people take on when they themselves try to facilitate these discussions inside the company. We’ve seen it go horribly wrong when their own employees are leading conversations but not equipped to handle tough conversations or give accurate information. In fact, if not adequately facilitated, these types of conversations could cause more pain and harm in the company. I’m a fan of creating space for these kinds of conversations with the caveat you have to do it with care and thoughtfulness.

Learn More: 

Guide to Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace