Viewpoint: Workers’ Narratives About Racial Injustice Can Change the Story

Global HR

​Several organizations are reacting to public demands to eradicate racial injustices. While we still have more work to do, I am cautiously optimistic about the recent changes we’ve witnessed, including changes to racist brands, removing statues and financial investments. 

These are all significant actions, but I am not convinced that they consistently translate into day-to-day improvements for Black employees at work. A recent
post on Reddit titled “My experience being a woman of color in the US” inspired me to consider how leaders can ask employees about their work experiences.

Namely, what if leaders asked all employees to share narratives about their experiences with racial inequality?

The prompt leaders could pose to their teams: Tell us about any race-related experiences you’ve had or witnessed since you were a child.

Why is it advantageous to share personal narratives at work?

First, all employees should participate in sharing narratives, not just Black employees. If all employees are encouraged to participate, it would stop people from making assumptions about how others experience life and work. Better still, it would give people concrete examples of specific behaviors they should stop or call out. This can create allyship.

Second, it would humanize people. We are all a sum of our life experiences. Everything that we’ve experienced and witnessed since we were children becomes our collective story. Those experiences influence what’s important to us and affect how we build relationships. They influence our biases and how we believe others perceive us. Genuine respect for others can’t be achieved until we see them as a whole person.

In most cases, we don’t know our co-workers’ narratives. We know them only by their job titles: financial analyst, product manager or administrative assistant. Some people think that knowledge is deep enough, but they are mistaken because relying on a single story is dangerous.

World-renowned author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us of what happens when we rely on a
single point of view: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Empowering employees to share their stories is the ultimate form of recognition because it sends a clear message: I see and hear you.

How would it work?

Employers should ask employees to share narratives about experiencing or witnessing acts of racism. Here are the steps employers can take to facilitate that process:

  1. State the intention. As a leader, you must state why you’re asking employees to share stories. It’s not to pry into their personal lives. Instead, it’s to foster a deeper understanding of individuals and encourage them to voice racial inequalities. It’s also intended to improve communication and promote transparency.
  2. Give them a choice. Employees should be given a choice to participate. Given the relationships that employees have with their co-workers, they may not feel comfortable sharing their stories. Some employees may not feel comfortable until others, especially their managers, share their stories.
  3. Create a safe space. Given the vulnerability employees may experience when they share narrative accounts of racial inequality, it will be helpful to set ground rules. For instance, stories will not be repeated and people will not be judged. An entire pre-meeting should be dedicated to explaining why employees are being asked to share narratives, and ground rules should be created during that time.
  4. Write the stories. Employees should be encouraged to write their narratives first and then decide what to share with the group. Encourage employees to share anecdotes about racial inequality in various settings, such as work, school and extracurricular activities.
  5. End with actions. Encourage your employees to state a few actions they’d like their co-workers to take to create an inclusive and equitable work environment.
  6. Follow up. Leaders should follow up with their employees to determine if they see improvements in the work environment.

If leaders are serious about ending racial inequity in the workplace, it’s time to encourage employees to share narratives. Only through honest conversation can real changes at work take place.

Kyra Sutton, Ph.D., is a faculty member at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, N.J., where she teaches courses in training and development, as well as in staffing and managing the 21st century workforce. She also has served in lead HR roles at Pitney Bowes and Assurant.

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