Our country might be divided. Our workplaces don’t have to be.

“How do I know my co-workers aren’t closet racists?” asked a friend of mine after learning that 49% of people in Nassau County (where she lives and works) voted for a presidential candidate that spewed hatred for so many of her identities: woman, Muslim, immigrant.

What’s interesting about that question is that it has little to do with identifying the “racists” in her office. The real heartache in that question is wondering if people she spends 40–60 hours a week with are able to see her skin color and her hijab and still see her humanity. Or do they see both as a threat — opening the door for unconscious bias to affect their decision making that could not only affect her career, but also her company by underutilizing the talents she brings to the table.

It’s a question so many underrepresented minorities (women, people of color, immigrants, LGBT folks) have wondered about, especially after November 8th.

How can I bring my whole self to work, knowing that some of my co-workers may fail to see (read: understand) who I really am?

How do I know I will be treated fairly by my manager if they’re of a completely different identity than me? Do I speak up if a lunchtime conversation turns to politics that directly attacks a group I identify with? Or do I leave my black, my brown, my gender, my sexuality at home because it makes some people uncomfortable? Will other people’s biases devalue my ideas, my contributions?

As we enter a political atmosphere built on divisiveness, the resulting fears will no doubt find their way into our workplaces. The responsibility then falls on organizational leaders to be proactive in creating a culture that supports diversity (of identity and thought) and fosters authenticity.

Here are four ways HR and Culture leaders can transform fear into opportunities for authenticity:

Offer space for compassionate dialogue.

Create formal and informal spaces to talk about inequity, diversity, inclusion. Too often, these discussions only happen after an “incident” and come from a place of fear (“let’s try to not get sued”). When we approach these dialogues from a place of compassionate learning — a deep desire to better understand those around us — the conversation changes drastically. We become intrigued by the experiences of our co-workers.

Hearing other people share their truth naturally emboldens us to share ours. —Tweet this

This opportunity to share our truth, and have it be heard by those who are different than us, is one of the biggest weapons against interpersonal bias. We take off our own masks and are able to see others without theirs, creating space for authenticity.

Yes, these conversations are hard. And, no they should not be led by your CEO, HR, or anyone referred to you by your lawyers. Hire someone experienced in leading these dialogues from a place of compassion, bridge-building, and allyship. Make it voluntary — research shows forcing people to have these talks has adverse effects. But make sure to clearly connect this initiative to your core company values so everyone understands its importance.

Teach employees how to be good allies to each other.

Speaking out against bias and hate is a courageous, but lonely (and scary) act. Too often, people from underrepresented communities feel like they have to carry the full weight of teaching others about their oppression. So when a hurtful comment is made, underrepresented minorities first have to process their discomfort/pain, analyze if the situation is safe enough to say something, then find the most palatable way to address it. All within a matter of seconds.

The safest, most powerful person in a situation like that is an ally — someone who isn’t affected personally by what was said, but is willing to step up and share the burden of that teachable moment. Let’s teach men to recognize and speak up when women’s ideas are being ignored in a meeting. Let’s teach cis-gendered people to defend why all-gender bathrooms are necessary. Let’s teach white people to give up their seat to a person of color when they’re invited to talk on an all-white panel.

The challenge is that most people have the intention, but little understanding of how to be good allies. Fortunately, there are countless resources out there for companies to teach their employees how to support one another. Here’s one.

Offer cross-cultural, cross-team opportunities.

A recent study found 75% of white people don’t have any non-white friends.—Tweet this

Consider then how they come to understand those who are different than them — mostly from stereotypical representations in the media. Similar homogeneity can be found in various teams in the workplace. Tech departments are usually full of men. PR, marketing, and HR are mostly women. The C-suite is often mostly white. These “echo chambers” limit our ability to understand who we can work with and who we see as a leader.

Offer opportunities for employees from different teams, ethnicities, genders to work together on “self-managed” projects. Increasing contact between different people challenges biases, increases team morale, and creates a deeper understanding of each other’s talents. Self-managed team projects also create opportunities for new leaders to shine, while challenging traditional notions of who is considered a leader.

Focus on fairness.

Nothing kills employee morale faster than knowing (or even just feeling like) you’re being treated unfairly because of your race and gender.

There’s enough research out there that proves women and people of color have historically been paid less and offered fewer opportunities to advance. And, in a political environment where minorities are being told they’re stealing other people’s jobs and white people or men are being treated unfairly, the fear that we’ll lose the progress we’ve made towards workplace equity is very real.

Commit to fairness by:

  • Having clear policies on salary and steps employees need to take to advance. For example, Trello has a fantastic “no-negotiation” policy with a set salary table based on objective factors such as years worked, professional experience, etc. This ensures every new employee knows their pay is determined by the professional experience they bring to the table.
  • Doing regular org-wide “audits” to measure if pay increases and promotions are being given out fairly. Did men get most promotions last year? Did white people receive the highest pay increases?
Unconscious bias is easier to recognize when seen from a bird’s eye view. —Tweet this

Knowing your that your employer believes in fairness, and is willing to ask the hard questions, gives ALL employees the confidence that their success depends on their effort, not their race or gender.

Do you think that current diversity initiatives do a sufficient job tackling these issues in the workplace? Why or why not? Tell us in the comments below!


Muneer Panjwani is the founder of Dversify, the first tech platform that makes it easy to collect and track employee diversity data. He is an expert on diversity and inclusion with a focus on fairness in the workplace. Muneer has led hundreds of workshops globally on how to recognize and combat bias using interactive, human centric methods.