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Solving Conflicts Around Race and Ethnicity in the Workplace

Conflict around race and ethnicity has recently manifested itself as a global conversation on race and discrimination. In some contexts, conflict is beneficial to advancing equality and inclusion. For example, the recent protests have inspired many companies to dedicate themselves more fully to ensuring they have a diverse workforce. However, in many contexts, conflict can […]

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Conflict around race and ethnicity has recently manifested itself as a global conversation on race and discrimination. In some contexts, conflict is beneficial to advancing equality and inclusion. For example, the recent protests have inspired many companies to dedicate themselves more fully to ensuring they have a diverse workforce. However, in many contexts, conflict can be detrimental by alienating individuals or groups, suppressing ideas, or even inspiring violence.

If this type of racial conflict arises in an organization, it can fester and metastasize into larger and larger issues. Therefore, it must be dealt with promptly and head-on. I recently sat down with Bina Patel, an expert on conflict resolution and CEO of Transformational Paradigms to talk about what organizations can do to prevent this negative conflict.

Linda Devonish-Mills: The current diversity and equality movement requires all of us to see race in the workforce. What steps are you advising your clients to take in order to implement real diversity and inclusion changes internally?

Bina Patel: The first step is to realize diversity and inclusion training is just a first step.

To build on it, hold one-hour long discussions on race and racism. The process should be voluntary and allow each of us to think for a second what it feels like to be discriminated against in the workplace.

Ask attendees “How does discrimination make you feel?” (with the intent of tapping into emotional intelligence), and “If you could do anything to make a change what would it be?” You could also ask, “how does the social issue of BLM impact you and do you bring these emotions into work with you?”

In answering these questions, attendees will understand that social problems impact our ability to work with a clear mind in the workplace. When these issues are not addressed in a safe forum, employees’ minds will churn so that they begin to fear racism exists in the workplace based on perception. Or they criticize every white male because of the perception they have developed due to societal issues.

Since most employees will not speak up if there is risk of retaliation, these conversations should be conducted by a third party neutral or someone who can offer psychological safety. This neutral party can then determine what trends need to be reported up to management.

Holding an open dialogue in teams or with an entire workforce in the format of a townhall is the key for folks to speak their thoughts, concerns, and share feelings. It builds trust, rapport, and more importantly shows employees their leadership cares enough to have a dialogue.

LM: When there is a lack of acceptance and understanding of a diverse culture among managers and their employees, conflicts may arise in organizations. How can organizations best manage these conflicts and their consequences?

BP: Conflicts will always arise. Ninety percent of conflicts in the workplace are personality conflicts. With personalities clashing, it is natural for folks to act out against someone due to the color of their skin, accent, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.

Personality types are important to who we are and are built upon our culture, cultural norms, and values. We bring all this into the workplace. When our values are compromised due to a workplace conflict, we begin to determine if this is the right place for us to work at. And when we realize that our values are compromised, we begin to understand when we should determine if a conflict was racially motivated or not.

The solution is to offer an interactive mandatory training on multicultural communications that is customized to each unique workforce. For example, in a recent training I executed, most of the employees lived in Puerto Rico. As such, my training on multicultural communications provided examples of the Puerto Rican culture, comparing it with the culture in the United States and Kenya, since I was born in Kenya.

Another key step in an effective multicultural communications training is Putting the concepts into practice through role-playing. Participants are given scenarios to act out that have issues pertaining to racism, diversity, and inclusion. Managers are tasked to act as themselves and mediate the conflict, while participants provide feedback.

LM: Workplaces must allow people to work regardless of their religion and beliefs. Can you share an example in which promoting religious diversity positively affected corporate culture?

BP: With my most recent client, we established a neutral space that folks could reserve in the building. The room was called, “neutral zone” and was a place where individuals or groups could reserve to pray.

This positively contributed to individuals from all faiths and religions. In fact, it allowed all individuals to gain a better understanding of different religions and see similarities in their faith while promoting a healthy conversation on religion.

LM: How can workplaces better understand and guarantee diversity of thought? What are the best tangible ways to measure how they can apply cognitive diversity and how it adds value to a business?

BP: This is very challenging to measure, but it can be done. Diversity of thought begins with having a workplace culture that invests in global talent.

When companies recruit and hire individuals from around the world, they begin to develop an innovative workforce. For the latter to occur, an organization’s culture must prioritize innovation, psychological safety, and talent. When all three elements are in alignment, then organizations can begin to build a culture that encourages diversity of thought as it contributes to the mission in the form of skills, creativity, and design of new products and services.

A metrics system can be built to include customer feedback. The way to measure cognitive diversity is to allow folks to share their ideas openly and bridge them to contribute to the companies mission, products, or services. When ideas are put into motion, group think is eliminated. A psychologically safe space allows all employees to take risks to speak their ideas, be creative and innovative, and diverse all at the same time. It builds healthy cultures.

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