Why ‘safe spaces’ are needed to discuss inclusion in the workplace

Even though inclusion can be difficult, or involve painful memories, don’t avoid it, says René Carayol

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Management Today

It’s never an easy or pleasant feeling to be ignored. 

It was an excellent evening out after not being able to meet up in person for so long. Some had Ubers arriving. Two of us left were getting a black cab – I’d drop off Chris at Marylebone Station on my way home. A black cab came up and I flagged it down, but it revved up its engine and tore past us. The pandemic had enabled me to forget these regular insults based on my race.

Chris saw it all and stood with his mouth open. In minutes, another drove up. Again, I flagged it down and, again, it shot by. There was a flash of anger in his eyes. “You’re going to have to do this.” I stepped back angrily from the kerb, and Chris flagged down the next black cab and we got in. We sat in silence. He just shook his head despondently.

Britain will not thrive if we drive by all those who are different.

The following morning we planned our first inclusion session with the chief executive and leadership team of one of the UK’s largest property businesses. The chief executive was keen to establish a far more inclusive culture, but his team were cynical and resistant to it.

We had arrived early; the team was setting up, and I started mingling with the attendees. They had not met in person for months; they had their guards down. It was obvious that they were apprehensive about this ‘inclusion stuff’, and not at all comfortable about the ‘unnecessary recent focus on race’.

I kicked off with The Sun’s quite unbelievable recent front page ‘We’ve got your back’ and shared some of the heartfelt letters sent in support of the English footballers Rashford, Sancho and Saka. We got straight into the ‘meat’ and the ‘heat’ of what was really holding things back. 

One of the directors had initially described himself as “the most aloof and distant” when it came to race. He felt his position was “to be fair and just on everything”. We had managed to create a ‘safe space’ and his honest opening statements positively fuelled the whole of the morning we spent together. After I had shared a couple of stories he spoke up and quietly shared that, whilst intending to be fair, he had closed his eyes and mind to the disparity and favouritism that was all around him.

If you want to turn your talk into a real act of service, you need to speak to the people in the room before your presentation begins. Take the time to listen carefully and gently provoke a reaction before you commence; it will help you set the tone and priorities. 

Inclusion is a right, not a privilege

In somewhat similar circumstances, we recently facilitated an inclusion retreat for the impressive leadership team of an upmarket retailer. Over half the team had joined the business in the past 12 months and this was the first time all the executive team were meeting together in person. They had something very special about them; every now and then, it’s a collection of little things that give an insight into the overall culture of the business.

Two members of our team were setting things up; members of the executive team kept popping in to say ‘Hello’ and were genuinely curious about them. This really mattered to my team – they notice, and feel good about, this level of recognition from senior executives – so do all employees.

There was a healthy gender balance, with more women than men, but no people of colour – quite odd for a London-based team where 40% of this great city’s population are ethnic minorities. We had a safe space, enabling me to touch on this, and we had an open and encouraging conversation about it. They had appointed a senior and experienced woman of colour a couple of years ago, but it hadn’t worked out.

They were honest about why they had failed. It had hurt them, and they had nervously shied away from trying again. We ‘deep dived’ into this in some detail, which they had not done before. They are more than ready and well-equipped to try again now. 

It is so powerful to create an environment where you and your team feel safe and free to talk openly about the challenging stuff. We are helping our clients talk about race, and it is setting a good precedent for opening up about lots of difficult issues.

Just because inclusion is difficult, or carries painful memories, don’t avoid it. 

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter like us on Facebook or connect with us on LinkedIn!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply