How to talk (and listen) about race in the workplace

27 Nov 20 | Blog

Do the disadvantages of focus groups outweigh the advantages?

It took the death of George Floyd to get the world talking about racial inequality. And it took a hashtag to get businesses to join the conversation – whether they were really contributing something worthwhile or not.

Through a mix of statement-making publicity stunts, varyingly sincere uses of #BlackLivesMatter on social media, and large donations to relevant causes, companies are acknowledging that conscious and unconscious racism is not something they can ignore. The next step? Taking action.

Focus groups and Employee Research Groups

The good news is that people realised they needed to listen. And that led to businesses rushing to set up focus groups, leaning on Employee Research Groups, and starting to ask their Black employees about their experiences.

These focus groups are intended as a safe space for open discussion. A place to share experiences, seek healing, and identify the problems inherent to organisations. At Qlearsite, we’re led by employee listening – so wouldn’t we consider this a good thing?

There are benefits of focus groups

Make no mistake, focus groups aren’t necessarily the wrong choice for your organisation. Providing an open forum not only gives a voice to those who may feel voiceless, it also gives you real insights into how your people feel. Accessing those “missing voices” creates a diversity of thought that can help lead to real diversity and inclusion.

It also lets your people be involved in the change process. Participants of these groups feel heard by having access to company leaders, meaning they can influence top-down change. But while this all sounds positive, there are some things to keep in mind.

Be aware of the disadvantage of focus groups

Before you make focus groups a key part of your diversity and inclusion strategy, there’s a few questions you need to ask yourself:

  1.  Are you sidestepping responsibility?

There’s one big criticism of this method: by relying on focus groups to drive change, it makes those facing discrimination responsible for escaping it. In some cases, being involved in driving diversity can be like having a “second job” – one you aren’t paid for, that takes time away from your actual role, and may inhibit your personal career growth. Change needs to come from the top.

2.  Do people feel like they’re reliving past traumas?

Let’s be realistic. Asking your Black employees about their experiences is likely to bring up, at best, some uncomfortable memories – and at worst, them reliving some of their most painful past moments. There’s mixed evidence about talking therapy, so don’t assume that opening up publicly is always best. Not to mention that, with the discrimination they already likely face, adding the pressure of participation may not be beneficial to their mental health.

3.  Will you really get honest answers?

If you were sitting in a room full of your peers and were asked deeply personal questions, would you always answer openly and honestly? Giving your people the chance to speak up is great, but you can’t manufacture a feeling of inclusion and safety if it doesn’t already exist. The responses you get may be self-filtered, or diluted down due to social pressure.

4.  Can you get the data you need to make actionable changes?

Another critique of focus groups is that few actions are taken as a result. When you hear about people’s experiences, how are you using that information to inform your next steps? Ultimately, you are responsible for driving change – so you need solid data to base that on.

Language analysis offers insights that focus groups don’t

There is another option. Our Diversity and Inclusion solution uses a combination of carefully curated survey questions and advanced language analysis to pinpoint where the problems are, and what actions you should take to fix them.

We ask closed questions to identify how your organisation scores when it comes to Diversity and Inclusion – finding where you’re doing well, and where you could improve. But it’s our open questions which really shine a light.

Using Natural Language Processing, our tool analyses your employees’ answers, identifying which key themes keep popping up – whether in a positive or negative light. And you can go deeper: looking at responses from certain demographics, comparing them with others, and delving into the comments.

Because the surveys can be anonymous, your people feel safe to be completely open. So you’ll really see the biggest areas for improvement, and where specifically where to focus – whether it’s on issues of pay, your management team, feeling supported, or otherwise.

Essentially, it’s a way to really listen. Because that’s what we should all be doing right now.

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