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Facilitating Discussions on Race in the Workplace: A 3-Step Framework

Facilitating Discussions on Race in the Workplace: A 3-Step Framework

Over the last year, there has been a sharp increase in anti-Asian racism in the United States, fueled in large part by COVID-related xenophobia. The Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community have had racial slurs hurled at them online and in public.

There are videos and images of Asian-American elders being assaulted across the nation. Now, many are struggling with how to respond to this in the workplace.

What can managers do for their Asian-American employees who may be hurting and angry after seeing attacks on their elders, hearing COVID being called the “China Virus,” or being told to go back to China?

What can leaders do for these employees, as well as their non-Asian employees who aren’t sure how to respond to and navigate the complexities of anti-Asian racism?

Just as we at Great Place to Work® argued after the murder of George Floyd, it is too much to ask of employees dealing with the grief and trauma of violent racism to flip a switch and pretend it doesn’t exist at work, where most adults spend most of their workweek.

Instead, we encourage workplaces to foster safe environments that do not turn a blind eye to what their employees are going through and instead center their experiences and healing.

One approach to creating this environment is by following a three-step framework we call “Head, Heart and Hands.”

How to begin talking about race with your employees

Approaching these conversations through the lenses of the head, heart and hands is about intellectual understanding around how racism works through historical and institutional contexts, emotional understanding through embracing someone’s truth, and taking individual and collective organizational action.

Get your free infographic on Facilitating Discussions on Race in the Workplace: a 3 Step Framework.

Head – Feeding the intellect

Thanks to harmful narratives like the “model minority” myth and the invisibility of AAPI experiences in the United States, many Americans are ignorant of the history of anti-Asian racism. This fact makes the attacks and the racist rhetoric seem shocking and “out-of-nowhere.”

That is why we believe that we must begin by deepening the collective knowledge and understanding of collective AAPI experiences, including what it means to be “Asian” (the term “Asian-American” refers to more than 40 different ethnic subgroups from more than 20 different countries).

Leaders can help employees find common ground through learning how histories of immigration shape our mainstream perceptions of the AAPI community.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, Executive Order 9066, and “Yellow Peril” are just a few examples of aspects of AAPI history that many people today simply aren’t aware of, making it difficult to contextualize the racism we see today.

Actions like sharing educational resources or hiring subject matter experts to speak to your organization about the history of AAPIs in the United States and the experiences of what it means to be AAPI today is a great way to provide people with more foundational knowledge of the issue at hand.

Heart – Embracing someone else’s truth

Having an AAPI Employee Resource Group (ERG) makes the Heart process considerably straightforward, because we believe that AAPI employees deserve to have a strong say in how their organization addresses anti-Asian racism internally, especially when it comes to Heart.

At Great Place to Work, several employees who identified as AAPI volunteered to share personal experiences and perspectives of being AAPI at a company-wide meeting. Employees shared their immigration experiences, times they’ve experienced racism and stereotypes, and what being AAPI meant to them.

The intention was to bring experiences that people have only read or heard about much closer to home, to hear directly from people who work beside them, and to talk about things they may have never talked about in the workplace before.

It is a very vulnerable act, which is why it can only be done at the behest and consent of your AAPI employees. Our Heart event was planned and run exclusively by our AAPI employees themselves: they were provided space, time, and encouragement to meet together and share what they wanted to do with the organization.

AAPI employees in your organization may want to share in a different way or do something different, but providing them space and centering their wishes and perspectives is the best way to start.

Because this process requires trust and vulnerability, employees must feel psychological safety before they can open up and share. If your organization does not have this foundation, it will be very difficult to lean into this process.

Hands – Handiwork around investing in lasting change

Hands is the “so what comes next?” part of this framework. Now that your organization is better-versed in the history and modern context of anti-Asian racism, what do you do next? Hands is about guiding your people and your organization to address anti-Asian racism in your community.

Ideas might include:

  • Drafting a public stance against anti-Asian racism as an organization
  • Creating a formal AAPI ERG if you didn’t have one before
  • Fundraising and donating to Asian-run organizations in your community
  • Attending a volunteer event to serve your local Asian-American community
  • Or anything else that gets your people and your organization involved in the fight against anti-Asian racism.

At Great Place to Work, we will be incorporating what we’ve learned from our company-wide listening sessions and ERG-hosted sessions into our learning plans for our people managers. The learnings will guide how our people managers become even greater inclusive leaders.

Next we will organize innovation teams based on employees’ ideas for how our company can have an even greater impact on social justice issues, bringing stronger DEIB lenses to our business processes.

Get your free infographic on Facilitating Discussions on Race in the Workplace: a 3 Step Framework.

Measure equity and inclusion in your workplace

For more information or help on your DEIB journey, contact us about how to measure and improve racial equity and inclusion in your workplace with our survey and analysis tool, Emprising™.


Matt Bush