How to have productive conversations about race at work

By | Meredith Somers | MIT Ideas Made to Matter | December 16, 2020

The police body camera footage, social media posts, and mounting news stories all made it clear to the leadership at software company HubSpot this summer that it was time to communicate where the company stood on race and racism. But it was the unsteady cellphone video showing the last seconds of Ahmaud Arbery’s life — and the reaction of HubSpot employees processing the images of Arbery being fatally shot while out for a Sunday run — that cemented the company’s responsibility to handle its own work in having conversations about racism.

“What we were explicit about at that juncture was it is not our [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] employees’ jobs to make people feel comfortable or to provide the context to have a conversation about race,” said HubSpot’s Chief People Officer Katie Burke, MBA ’09. “We are going to put together materials with input and insight from BIPOC employees and leaders, but then it is on all of us to do the work, and to take advantage of the resources.”

Ownership and openness are at the heart of having uncomfortable but productive conversations at work about race and racism. And they need to happen. A 2020 Society for Human Resource Management survey of U.S. workers and human resource professionals found that 37% of both white and Black workers felt uncomfortable having discussions about racial issues at work.

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