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19 Action-Oriented Words of Wisdom on Ending Systemic Racism in the Workplace

Jul 1, 2020
HR Acuity


“We have to get uncomfortable with getting uncomfortable.”

Those were just a few of the words of wisdom shared by our four expert panelists at a webinar HR Acuity recently hosted, talking about how to start the conversation about race in the workplace and end systemic racism. As employee relations and HR leaders we need to start the journey and ensure we are making our organizations safer and fairer particularly for black employees.

We were privileged to host a distinguished and diverse group of thought leaders:

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Here are a few of their thoughts, best practices and practical advice from their experience in the field. For the complete discussion, listen to the replay.

Authenticity Starts from the Top

Ending systemic racism in your organization is not just the responsibility of your HR department, Employee Relations team, Black Employee Resource Group or a small task force. It needs to be driven from the C-Suite. Senior leaders must realize this is not a moment in time, but a movement and a journey that they need to lead within the organization.

  • The right sponsorship is critical. “Who is the sponsor? If the sponsor is the CHRO that’s probably not the right sponsor. It really needs to be the CEO”- Christin Merkel, Head of Organization Effectiveness, Verizon
  • Customize for your company culture. “This is not a one size fits all, you will learn a lot of things that work really nicely in some cultures but not in others. You need to find what works for your organization and employees and customize for your culture”- Debbie Pollock-Berry, CHRO, Save the Children
  • It’s not about a statement or celebrating Black History Month. “One well-intended letter is not enough to start the conversation around race. The CEO and C-Suite need to start the conversation”- Christin Merkel, Head of Organization Effectiveness, Verizon
Want more tips? Get our Tackling Race in the Workplace Guide, which offers practical advice on starting the conversation, empowering employees at all levels and building the right action plan for your organization

Create a Safe Space to Engage All Employees, Not just Your Black Employees

As employee relations and HR leaders we need to help facilitate conversations with our employees, empower managers to have these difficult conversations and invite all employees to participate. Everyone doesn’t need to speak up, but they need to listen, learn and absorb the voices of those who do speak up and appreciate their experiences.

When you are setting up these conversations it’s extremely important to have organizational awareness and understand where your employees are and meet them there.

  • Recognize we will make mistakes, but we have to start by starting. “We are not going to get it all right, but we are going after this hard and all employees, not just black employees, want to take a stand. These are difficult times but exciting times”- Debbie Pollock-Berry, CHRO, Save the Children
  • You don’t have to speak up but you have to be in the room. “We are helping facilitate conversations with our internal team, creating a space to speak, allow employees to be in the moment, share their thoughts and just listen if they want to”- Debbie Pollock-Berry, CHRO, Save the Children
  • Recognize this is difficult: “We have to get employees comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable, which is a really difficult thing”- Debbie Pollock-Berry, CHRO, Save the Children
  • Everyone needs to be all in. “This is not a problem for your black employees”- Deb Muller, CEO, HR Acuity

HR Acuity CEO Deb Muller shares her insights on how the role of HR practitioners is changing and talking about race at work is no longer taboo. How do you stand up and start a conversation about racism at work?

Get Comfortable with the Uncomfortable

Embarking on this journey is tough for everyone. We are all having to relearn what we were taught was acceptable to talk about at work and what we learned about in school when it comes to our history, race and privilege.

  • Non-black employees need to get uncomfortable. “We are all uncomfortable, especially me. I’m a white woman and I’m having a conversation and it’s awkward and it’s hard and I should have had it a long time ago, I am feeling uncomfortable but I’m doing it”- Christin Merkel, Head of Organization Effectiveness, Verizon
  • Know this is also difficult for black employees “Recognize when your black employees speak up, what they say has been inside for a long time and they also need that space and to get comfortable, but we have been conditioned not to talk about these things”- Debbie Pollock-Berry, CHRO, Save the Children
  • Relearn what you were taught. “I need you to see my color, because by saying you don’t see color you are giving yourself permission to ignore and not see where you need to work on your own biases”- Kalimah Johnson, Lead Consultant at Soul Healing Consulting LLC

Take action. Download our Personal Accountability Plan Template to commit to what you are going to read, research, listen to and do to change and mobilize within your community.

Deal with Resistance

How do HR and employee relations leaders approach employees who are resistant or believe they don’t need to change or be part of this journey? This is an extremely personal journey. It’s important as leaders to help facilitate for employees, especially the resistant group, a safe space to enlighten themselves, see how other employees are responding, understand they are not alone and reflect on how they want to show up in the future.

  • Practice how you will respond. “Help them through their own change narrative. You have to practice how you are going to respond to these things”- Christin Merkel, Head of Organization Effectiveness, Verizon
  • Don’t let employees take the easy road. “It’s easy for employees to say I’m not that “I’m not racist” and “I don’t use my privilege” – Kristin Rummell Binkley, Principal, Athlone Consulting, LLC
  • Invite external voices to challenge and change the conversation. “Outsiders coming in to have these conversations are helpful. I can walk in, drop the mic and leave”- Kalimah Johnson, Lead Consultant at Soul Healing Consulting LLC
  • Leverage real scenarios in your organization to force resistant employees to reflect. “Scenarios allow them to challenge where they are and where their attitude has been in a way that’s specific for their organization… (it) gives them an opportunity to reflect and unpack these things and they end up being peer supporters for each other on how they really want to show up”- Kalimah Johnson, Lead Consultant at Soul Healing Consulting LLC
  • Introduce consequences. “Consequences work well to help people to understand this is not the kind of culture we are trying to continue and if this space is not for you based on us trying to become more inclusive, more understanding and making black voices more visible then maybe you should reconsider where you’re working”- Kalimah Johnson, Lead Consultant at Soul Healing Consulting LLC

HR Acuity CEO Deb Muller shares our commitments at HR Acuity and some action- oriented tips from the Employee Relations Community in her recent blog- Juneteenth: Taking Action Against Racism.

Welcome Different Voices

Encouraging leaders and employees to speak up and creating safe spaces for them to share is important. Equally important is introducing external voices and ensuring there are different voices in the conversation. It helps diversify our thinking, learning and ultimately provides employees a toolbox of resources, knowledge and power to continue the conversation and become allies for each other.

  • It shouldn’t just be the black employees who share. “We need to hear from all voices, we all need to take responsibility. Don’t leave this as a burden for your black employees to solve”- Kristin Rummell Binkley, Principal, Athlone Consulting, LLC
  • Sprinkle in some positivity. “There has to be a balance of talking about the pain and the resilience and cultural aspects of black people and the ways in which we have healed and what has worked”- Kalimah Johnson, Lead Consultant at Soul Healing Consulting LLC
  • Lead courageous conversations across your value chain. “It’s not just about what we do internally but how do we make a difference and create a courageous conversation externally and in our industries”- Debbie Pollock-Berry, CHRO, Save the Children

Remember, “This is a movement not a moment”- Christin Merkel, Head of Organization Effectiveness, Verizon.

We invite everyone to watch the full “Talking About Race in the Workplace” panel webinar on-demand and share these learnings, resources and best practices with your senior leadership, employee relations and HR teams and personal networks. Don’t let the fear of doing the wrong thing prevent you from starting. Take action and don’t give up!

Let us know your thoughts and what actions you are taking today and every day against racism. You can reach us at


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