Race Relations and Your Business: Your Questions Answered

November 20, 2020
By Nelson Connects

​In October 2020 we presented a NelsonTalks webinar on Race Relations and Your Business: Making DEI Part of Your Company’s DNA. Our guest speakers, Dr. Jarik Conrad and Connia Nelson, offered a historical perspective and critical discussion of why the American workplace looks as it does today. They provided insights and recommendations for building sustainable DEI plans to improve the employee experience and ultimately build stronger organizations.


During the presentation, our virtual audience asked some great questions. Below are answers to those and other questions submitted to our two speakers. We hope this information provides additional context and insight as you explore and implement DEI at your organization.


You talked about being careful with labels. Can you talk more about labels with regard to hiring practices, such as: "We're going to hire xxx "people of color" etc.). This is a complicated topic for HR professionals.


Dr. Conrad:
From an internal organizational standpoint, we have defined EEO categories that we can use. Overall, when I talk about labels, not only am I referring to how we categorize people, but I’m also talking about language. Be careful about leading with terms like “white privilege.” Leading with those types of terms when people don’t have enough grounding is only going to elicit an emotional reaction. We tend to communicate things in the ways we want to hear them, and, for example, I've been around diversity circles for a long time, so that term means something different to me than to someone who’s never heard it.


When referring to a person or group of color (specifically black), which is the more appropriate term: "Black" or "African American"? Or is either okay?

Dr. Conrad:

The reality is that it comes down to individual preference. You don’t know unless you ask. Most people are comfortable with African American or Black. But if you weren’t born in the United States, and you’re from a different country, sometimes you bring that cultural identity with you, and you might want to be known more from your Caribbean identity than African American. So, there are some nuances, but it’s safe to just ask people, “How do you prefer that we refer to you?”


Can you please discuss the importance of allyship in organizational settings?


Allyship cannot be underestimated. I think that’s one of the things we often miss and neglect to do. Using myself as an example, I didn’t know the importance of allyship early in my career. I’d show up and think:I’ve got to land my performance. You can forget it’s important to tap into someone else and create those allies within the organization with people who can be supportive of you, who can help you to maneuver. Somebody you can tap into who can be an accountability partner for you. Allyship is absolutely critical.


Dr. Conrad:
You have to be careful about introducing a class on allyship 101. The person who's not in the choir says, “I don’t want to go to that junk, that’s not for me.” We have to do better than just getting the people who are already in the choir, already geared toward these conversations, in the room. We have to get the people in the room who typically stray away from diversity-related topics, and we have to be careful about the labels and the language we use and how we choose to introduce those concepts.


In your opinion, what 3 actions, policies, or programs could the U.S. President or congress enact to significantly improve racial inequality?


Dr. Conrad:
We have arrived at a place where we can talk seriously about reparations. The topic has to be framed totally differently, and there are  all kinds of mechanisms by which this can happen. The reality is, if you have this system with built-in inequities and disparities, and if today you stop all forms of discrimination, everything is completely open, everybody has equal opportunity, people are getting hired at the rates that are reflective of their numbers in a population, all you do is keep [the gap of disparities from increasing]. But you maintain the status quo of the last 400 years that’s built in. 


So, if there is no intentional intervention to close those gaps, you just stop the bleeding. You just keep the built-in biases from growing. This topic has generated a lot of emotion over the years, but we’re finally ready to have a serious discussion about it. We have to figure out what that means and what it would look like from a governmental standpoint.


From a business standpoint, you can control what’s within your control. You can control the things within the walls of your organization and the communities you affect. But there are lots of policies and legislation that can close the gap, because the reality is that policies and legislation created the gaps. So, we just have to have an honest conversation about that. 


I like the idea of asking the same questions of every applicant, but I worry that the questions can be pre-biased. Please help us understand what types of interview questions might contain pre-bias and how do we combat that.


By being clear about the role of the position and setting up your questions will really ferret out the competencies that you're looking for, the experiences that you're looking for, and tying directly back to that position.


You may have character that you want to ferret out, such as: We look for people who are hungry, we look for people who are humble. So, you have to think about how to figure that out and how do you ask the questions that will really get you to the outcomes you’re trying to create.


Making questions consistent across the board creates a level playing field. What's really good is having diversity on your interview panel. At the end of the process every interviewer makes their assessments; they cannot see what other interviewers are putting in. When we get together for the debrief, one interviewer isn’t influencing the other, and you have the opportunity to talk through what you heard, what you thought you saw, and a chance to check your biases. You have the have the full-cycle end-to-end, but I have seen it work very effectively. I have truly seen people get selected that otherwise would not have.


Dr. Conard:
We ought to be bringing in science. There are tools -- AI tools, machine learning, natural language processing -- that, for example, can tell that when you interview women and provide feedback, the feedback is a little different than when you interview men. We can look at hundreds of these things and see that for women, there are specific words that pop up, whereas for men, there are other specific words that pop up. 


By using a little bit of that science, we’re using some facts and not just people’s perceptions. And then there’s training people on how to provide their feedback or how to react to people based on what we known from science. 


We also don’t include the real qualifications in job descriptions. We don't include things like resilience, when in reality most of our jobs require some level of resilience. We’ll value technical skills over something like resilience, and we’ll get are ally smart person who just falls apart whenever there’s some pressure. 

Women and people of color will demonstrate a level of resilience just to make it to the interview process. If something like resilience is looked at as an essential part of the job, you naturally start to increase the diversity within the pools because these people have demonstrated this at a high level, and you can ask about these skills in the interview process. It’s not always about what we ask but also about what we don’t ask.


I have experienced racism in two different ways, especially in the south. What I'm referring to is internal racism among African Americans.  How has this been addressed?


Dr. Conrad:
If I understand your question, you are referring to Black people treating other Black people poorly. There are a lot of reasons this might occur. 

First, keep in mind that this happens within every demographic group. As with any human behavior, the goal is to understand the root cause. Sometimes this is a result of anger or frustration with the current state of things for Black people. Sometimes people are dealing with self-hate or internalized oppression. Sometimes people engage in this behavior to gain acceptance with their white colleagues. 


Once you understand the root cause, use that knowledge to try to steer that negative energy in a positive direction.


What would be your approach if a conversation about race among your teammates goes the opposite away, from empathy and understanding to blaming and disrespect?


Dr. Conrad:
First, don’t reciprocate. You can’t control other people’s behavior, but you can control yours. Try to move the conversation from feelings to data. Often, people’s emotions are tied to perceptions rather than reality. You might also say something like, “I’d be happy to talk further about this, but we have to do so calmly and purposefully.” You must assess whether disengaging from the discussion is the more appropriate action to take at that time.


I work in leadership for a small company (30-40 employees) and would personally like to attract more qualified candidates of color and women. Please note, we are in a white male-dominated industry. What are some steps that we can take to get there?


Dr. Conrad:
Go where they are. Look at women’s colleges, HBCUs (historically black colleges or universities), or other schools with more significant demographic representation. Post your jobs with alumni groups of fraternities and sororities. Ask your employees to refer diverse candidates. Explore any industry associations for women and people of color.

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