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Talking About Race at Work Might Not Be the Worst Idea After All

  • Honest discussions make workers less likely to quit: study
  • ‘Silence comes at a hefty cost’ to retention, advancement

Talking about race has long been taboo in the workplace. From a human-resources perspective, it feels like a legal liability, and no one at any level wants to offend a co-worker. Better to stay away.

That instinct might do more harm than good. Across races, a majority of workers say open conversations about race could actually create a better work environment, according to a new report published by the Center for Talent Innovation, a Manhattan-based think tank. Employees who say it’s acceptable to talk about race at work also report feeling more respected and included. They also express less desire to leave.

The inverse is also true. Employees who say it’s never acceptable to talk about experience of bias at work are about twice as likely to say they feel isolated or alienated at work. Black employees who feel censored say they’re three times as likely to be planning to leave and 13 times more likely to report being disengaged.

“For organizations committed to the retention and advancement of all professionals, silence comes at a particularly hefty cost,” Tai Wingfield, CTI’s senior vice president of communications, said in a statement. “There are business and brand imperatives to speaking up and out.”

Some companies, particularly those that have made public their commitment to increasing diversity among employees, have begun to facilitate official conversations around racial discrimination. As part of a pledge to support diversity and inclusion, more than 150 chief executive officers, including those from American Express, IBM and Wal-Mart, agreed earlier this month to encourage employees to more freely discuss race in the office.

Tim Ryan, the U.S. chairman of consultant PwC and one of the signatories of the pledge, said he recognized the need for more sensitive conversations about race last July following the police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. After videos of both shootings went viral, Ryan said he received “hundreds of hundreds of emails” from his employees asking for the company to hold a larger discussion on race.

“It was very uncomfortable to talk about it and there’s a risk,” Ryan said in an interview earlier this month. “But we learned about one another and what it was like to be a black professional. Despite all the programs we had, we’re still on our journey.”

The study suggests one of the challenges includes convincing white people the conversations are necessary. While a majority of black, Hispanic and Asian employees said it was important for companies to make public statements addressing national or local racial issues, less than half of white employees agree.

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