Should We Talk About Race Relations At Work? PwC Thinks So.

Handshake Between Businessmen
Handshake Between Businessmen

You can't witness the racially-charged tragedies in St. Paul, Dallas, and Baton Rouge, and countless other places, and not feel something. Outrage, pain, confusion, sadness -- perhaps a combination all of the above and more. The subject of race is so complex and emotionally charged that it's difficult to find ways to talk about it constructively and effectively. It either becomes an argument where opposing sides never even attempt to understand each other -- or, equally problematic, the conversation remains so polite, so worried about offending someone, that it accomplishes nothing.

As a business leader, what can you do?

You could ignore it until it goes away, but let's be honest -- that's never an effective or lasting strategy, especially when it comes to a cultural flashpoint that has been around since pretty much forever.

You could try making a statement. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz attempted to do exactly that by launching a #RaceTogether initiative after the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Schultz wanted to jumpstart conversations about race in America by encouraging baristas to write "Race Together" on coffee cups.

The movement seemed to come from a well-intentioned place, but Starbucks was blindsided by negative backlash. Many saw the move as a shallow solution to a deep problem, and many people were confused whether the initiative was genuinely philanthropic or a carefully crafted PR campaign from a huge corporation. The response was generally cynical, and in many ways, the initiative failed. Check out John Oliver's summation here.

The actual execution of the campaign notwithstanding, Schultz's heart was in the right place: we need to do something, and these problems aren't going to get better if we ignore them.

That's why corporate leaders like Tim Ryan, PwC's U.S. chairman, are tackling the delicate issue head-on with their staff in the hopes that the conversation will extend far beyond the walls of their business. Here's our full video interview about business leadership.

Ryan's commitment to diversity and cultural understanding is a long-standing cornerstone of his leadership at PwC. "It's incredibly important [to have a diverse team]," he said. "Our client base and our people touch all cultural and social issues across the U.S. and globally. We're in virtually every community, which means we need to understand the world from many different perspectives."

After the violent shootings in St. Paul, Baton Rouge, and Dallas earlier this month, Ryan walked into work, only to be met with a tense silence. Instead of coming up with a hashtag campaign, Ryan decided to take action in a different way: by listening.

"When you think about what happened in Dallas and subsequently Baton Rouge, it was heart-breaking, it was confusing, and it was hard to understand," Ryan said. "And as a leader, you want to react, but I don't understand the issue from every perspective. So, I went to our people, and I asked them. I said, 'Please give us advice. We care. We know it's an issue, but please give us advice.' "

Ryan talked with hundreds of people, and it became clear that the best step for his organization was to create an environment where people could share their feelings. He organized a firm-wide discussion on race that week.

"The biggest piece of advice I have is to listen," Ryan says. "As leaders, we're wired to have answers and solutions.Listen. As I listen to our people about some of the stories, hundreds of e-mails, discussion groups . . . The more I listened, the more I understood."

For instance, one African-American employee (on PwC's executive team) referred to his suit as his "cape:" when he wears it, society perceives him as one of the "good guys;" when he doesn't, however, it suddenly becomes a different story. He's then instantly at a drasticly higher risk of being perceived as a threat and much more likely to be met with violence or agression in certain situations. His story was particularly impactful given the recent shooting of Charles Kinsey, unarmed Black therapist, who was shot by a police officer while working with one of his autistic patient.

Ryan makes a concerted effort to open a company-wide dialogue and help his employees share their stories with as wide an audience as possible. To that end, he discussed what he had heard with Elena Richards, PwC's Minority Initiatives and Talent Management Leader; together, using public social media platforms like Twitter and Snapchat, the two encouraged employees to share their own experiences and engage in an open, honest dialogue.

When it comes to race relations and the violence we've seen in the recent months, there are no easy answers. No single thing is going to suddenly make everything better. But we must keep the conversation going. Facilitating discussion -- even if it's uncomfortable -- is the best way we can learn from what's been happening, so our society doesn't keep making the same mistakes.