Make Your Meetings Anti-Racist: Battling Racial Discrimination In The Workplace
Whether you love or hate them, meetings are a huge part of modern working lives.
They make up spaces where we can come together to solve problems and share information, come up with creative solutions and receive feedback. However, not all of our meeting experiences are positive. Many of us experience a sense of discomfort, feel like our voices aren’t heard or as if there is no safe space for us to speak up. Meetings can be unnecessary and unproductive or resemble one-(wo)man shows, as well as be influenced by cognitive and cultural bias of the participants.
For this article, we have partnered with FLAIR to focus on race as a crucial diversity dimension that uniquely influences our experiences in meetings, as well as discuss solutions that companies can employ to ensure a safe and inclusive environment.
Let’s start with the basics. What are diversity dimensions that we mentioned earlier and why do they matter in work meetings?
Diversity comes in various dimensions. Some of the diversity characteristics are inherited and given and some can be chosen. The dimensions of diversity include gender, religious beliefs, race, marital status, ethnicity, parental status, age, education, physical and mental ability, income, sexual orientation, occupation, language, geographic location, and many more.
Source: Diversity Wheel (Loden et al. 1991; Gardenswartz et al. 2003)
Race is considered an internal dimension, meaning it’s an inherent aspect beyond one’s control. While the concept of race is a social construct, meaning that perceived physical differences are artificially categorized into races, it has a very real impact on our experiences in the workplace and beyond. Although racial discrimination is outlawed in many countries (which extends to laws regarding conduct in the workplace), it is an unfortunate reality that many People of Color face in their day-to-day lives. In fact, one in four Black employees reported experiencing discrimination at work in 2021. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Diversity or lack thereof heavily influences the sense of belonging.
Representation often contributes to stronger diversity, yet it doesn’t always translate to inclusion. A diverse group may strengthen the sense of belonging – while a homogenous group tends to shy away from expressing controversial ideas in fear of rejection, in a diverse group, people are more comfortable expressing unique ideas. However, as diversity advocate Vernā Myers puts it, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” Ensuring diversity doesn’t always translate into a safe and inclusive environment, but what does?
Let’s have a look at the most prominent factors that can contribute to racial inequality and lack of inclusion in meetings.
A cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking. It usually occurs when our brains try to simplify the information they receive, often altering it in a false way. Biases can influence the way we see and think about the world. While many of such biases affect pretty much all members of the group (for example, Imposter Syndrome, the Anchoring Effect or Social Loafing), In-Group Bias, or the tendency to sympathise with people who are similar to us, may influence interracial interactions during meetings. By unconsciously sticking to judging the similarity of whoever delivered a certain idea instead of objectively judging the idea itself one may overshadow contributions coming from various sources. Moreover, In-Group bias may even affect who gets certain opportunities and gets promoted at work, resulting in a lack of representation in senior leadership roles for BIPOC. This, in turn, also highly affects group dynamics.
Tone policing is a tactic where a person purposely turns away from the message behind another’s argument in order to focus solely on the delivery of it and the emotions accompanying the delivery. Therefore, expressing oneself in a way not considered common in a homogenous group can lead to judgment and exclusion. Research has shown that 37% of Black Americans and Hispanics and 45% of Asians say they “need to compromise their authenticity” to conform to their company’s standards of demeanor or style.
So, what does tone policing even look like? It may sound something like: “Calm down”, “You don’t need to get so angry”, or even: “Being so emotional is unprofessional”. Focusing on the tone instead of the message suppresses the voices of the marginalized by making them feel invalid.
Microaggressions can be defined as subtle interactions or behaviours that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups. Although “subtle”, these actions can have a tremendous impact on POC without those responsible even being aware of them. Microaggressions can include assumptions, insensitive or unsolicited comments or even cautioned behaviour. These have the potential to be most prominent in meetings, as they can often be expressed verbally and without explicit intent from the speaker.
Microaggressions may involve messages of “othering”, when POC workers are made to feel foreign or not part of the group even when they possess the same citizenship or qualifications as the rest of the group. Minimizing or ignoring issues of race (with phrases like “I don’t see colour” or “There is only one race, the human race.”) can also harm POC employees by erasing crucial racial or ethnic experiences and promoting majority culture. You can find more examples of microaggressions here.
As POC are often placed in a position where a lot of emotional and educational work falls on their shoulders, it is important to create a safe space in advance, ensuring sufficient levels of education and training among the team. Being aware of the difficulties faced by POC employees can be the first step to promoting effective change. Another important addition could be minimizing biases in workplace settings. ‘Diversity & Inclusion: Satisfying the tickbox?’ podcast co-host Vijitharan Nageswaran asks the question: “How can we promote inclusion within the community? We’re talking about the community, not even the workplace. And I think it comes back down to educating, raising awareness”. Highlighting the existence of the issue and taking the measures to educate employees serves as a base for inclusive culture overall.
However, it’s important to remember that the main goal here is not changing the individuals – it’s about changing the system and framework that enables the possibility of discrimination in general.
Circling back to meetings, implementing changes could result in designing your daily standups or team meetings in a way that counters various unconscious behaviors and decision-making patterns. For example, a way to counter cognitive bias in meetings is to use a mix of individual thinking and moderated discussions. Let people think and write down their ideas for themselves first before starting a group discussion. This way you prevent social loafing, the anchoring effect and unconscious bias, as well as allow members to engage with ideas more openly and confidently.
“As a remote team, strong communication is at the heart of what we do – that means clear and inclusive meeting agendas prepared before team meetings. We want our colleagues to be able to bring their whole selves to work, which means creating an environment where they feel safe, seen and heard.” – Rebecca Eckardt, Strategic Partnerships Lead at FLAIR
Recognizing and calling out microaggressions is an important part of creating safer spaces. Educating and encouraging employees to be mindful of their feedback (for example, asking themselves: “Am I responding to the actual content or am I reacting to the delivery?” to avoid tone policing)
Another approach could include design thinking. Design thinking techniques give great frameworks for a combination of individual and group work. Design thinking is a hands-on iterative approach to problem-solving favoring action over discussion. This approach roots in product design but can be applied to take on any kind of challenge. Frameworks like “Five whys” or “How might we?” spark individual creativity and guide group discussions.
Sticking to a meeting agenda with active moderation to allow all voices to be heard could be yet another solution for more effective and meaningful inclusion. The meeting moderator should intentionally design meetings with racial equity in mind, allowing for equal speaking times, as well as promoting various types of participation to help put all kinds of ideas into the spotlight.
Everyone deserves a workspace where they can feel like they matter. Although meetings don’t fully define workplace culture, they play a huge role in employees’ everyday interactions and sense of belonging. Ensuring a safer space and proactively striving for racial equity is not only a step towards traditionally financially viable factors such as higher employee satisfaction and retention rates but also a way to make people’s lives just a little lighter. Putting human needs and connections first is a rewarding experience that reflects positively on both business performance and proactive change.