Why people are uncomfortable talking about race at work

Diversity may be a hot topic in business blogs and TED talks, but the solutions determined rarely make it into the workplace.

Why? In most cases, we find the subject too uncomfortable to raise. Just like conversations about politics and religion, the topic has become taboo because of its emotionally charged nature.

Considering 3 in 10 black employees feel their careers are held back by discrimination, it’s a conversation that is long overdue. Regrettably, our inability to talk about race at work becomes the barrier that prohibits inclusion; race becomes the elephant in the room that nobody wants to address.

Why can’t we talk about race?


In truth, conversations about areas of privilege will always be uncomfortable. They challenge our perceived progress in racial equality because they highlight persistent problems that we have failed to address despite our intentions. Conversations about race force us to acknowledge an unacceptable reality that cannot be fixed with a flick of a switch.

It’s one thing to talk about racial inequality online; to read about it or to watch a news story on the subject. When face to face with the issue, we are too overcome by guilt, frustration and discomfort to deal with it properly. So, we sidestep the problem, awkwardly awaiting someone else to lead the charge. Meanwhile, individuals from minority groups themselves feel uncomfortable raising the lack of inclusion to their managers for fear of being treated differently.

It’s time to start a conversation


System change is the ultimate goal, but it cannot be achieved if we refuse to discuss the problem candidly; it is only made possible by leaders who can brave uncomfortable discussions in order to understand what is happening in their organisation and how they can change it.

Middle management can also play a crucial role in initiating the dialogue on race at work; their unique position enables them to facilitate conversations with their respective teams and bring the issue of racial inequality into the spotlight.

In order to address unconscious bias and eliminate the “elephant in the room”, we must treat inclusion not as a policy or procedure, but a behaviour. Everyone in the business shares a certain degree of responsibility in creating a welcoming culture, but it’s up to those heading up the company to lead from the front and set the tone for the rest of the team.