Early in her career, Y-Vonne Hutchinson, founder and CEO of diversity, equity and inclusion consulting firm ReadySet and author of How to Talk to Your Boss About Race, joined her then-colleagues for after-work drinks.
As the night wore on, her coworkers—who were not Black—began to talk negatively about Black people. Hutchinson, who is Black, was upset and disappointed by the conversation. After taking a few days to cool down, she met with her managers to discuss the incident. Instead of understanding her point of view, they defended her coworkers and told her she was overly sensitive.
A month later, her contract wasn’t renewed.
As Hutchinson learned, it can be difficult to have a fair, productive conversation about race with a boss. But those discussions are necessary, especially as racism persists inside and outside the workplace.
Just over 40% of Black workers in the U.S. felt unfairly treated in the workplace due to their race or ethnicity over the last five years, according to research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). One-quarter of Asian workers and one-fifth of Hispanic workers concurred.
Candid conversations with your boss on the topic of race can feel nerve-wracking, but they are essential to increase understanding—and equality—for you and those around you. Here’s how to embark on those discussions.
Know Your End Game
Workers often go into these conversations feeling emotionally charged, but Hutchinson says it’s vital to have a cool head and focus on your desired result. For instance, if you feel that broad changes need to be made at your organization, consider how your boss can play a part in implementing that change. Go in with clear and realistic expectations of what your manager can accomplish in their individual role and offer ideas on how widespread change can be made.
Find Allies in Your Organization
If you don’t have experience talking about racial issues, it can help to find a community of knowledgeable people who can coach and support you, Hutchinson says. She advises workers to connect with others in their organization who are already working on racial and diversity-related topics. “You don’t have to do this alone,” she says. “You’re much more likely to succeed if it’s not just you. Also, if you fail, which happens, you’re not sticking out to get the backlash.”
Relate Your Conversations to Business Interests
Connecting your concerns with company interests will make it harder for management to ignore you. For instance, point out that diverse and inclusive teams perform better according to research. Explain how toxic work settings can cause attrition—costing companies significant money as they hire and train new people—and that organizations that don’t address inappropriate behavior face major reputational and legal risks.
Focus on How a Behavior Affected You
Even if you hear or see something that could be considered racist, don’t immediately deem a person or action as racist, advises Chance Patterson, CEO of leadership communications firm Chance Impact. “I try to avoid labeling because it distracts from the actual behavior,” he says. Instead, explain how a statement, conversation or action made you feel.
For instance, he says, if you overhear coworkers talking about how they were scared when walking in a predominantly Black area, share with your boss your concerns, and even sadness, how that type of conversation could indicate that your colleagues may not be at ease with you as a Black person. You can also note your worries about how these kinds of discussions can potentially make people fearful around Black people.
By homing in on how you were affected, you’re not initiating a debate on what is racist behavior and what isn’t. Instead, you’re focusing on how something affected you, which can lead to a productive dialogue. “You’re not asking your boss to fix somebody,” Patterson says. “What you’re trying to do is prevent those kinds of uncomfortable comments from being made.”
Be Ready for Pushback
When Hutchinson looks back on her early-career conversation with her then-bosses, she says she would advise her younger self to be more prepared for pushback and denial.
Furthermore, what if the person contributing to the negative work climate is your boss or manager? The same advice outlined above holds true, says Patterson, but the conversation requires even more tact, since they might get defensive.
In this scenario, Patterson says it’s helpful to start by saying that the racist behavior is something you’d want to raise with them regardless of who it came from. “Set it up as something you want to speak about openly in general,” he adds. “Framing it this way shows that you’re a self-aware individual who is feeling upset about a real-life situation in the office.”
On the other hand, Hutching says she sees a cultural shift where managers are increasingly willing to have open discussions about race. “A lot of workplaces are having an existential moment about the kind of organizations they want to be, and how they show up for their employees,” Hutchinson says. “I would encourage people to see that this is a chance to seize the moment … it’s time to push for change.”
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Ellen Sheng is a New York City-based writer whose work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fast Company and more.