Inclusion in the Workplace: Unraveling Racism Through Organizational Transformation

Since last spring and the horrific murder of George Floyd, everyone from corporations to my Aunt Cheryl has decided that NOW is the time to talk about race.

Where should these discussions happen?


Book clubs that used to read Chelsea Handler have pivoted to ‘Me and White Supremacy.’

All this work is meaningful, important, and long-overdue.

The challenge is how we translate the siloed work of disparate teams into an institutional shift. It’s been almost a year since many white Americans took notice of systems and cultures that perpetuate racism, and we must ask ourselves: how do we shift an organizational culture to truly be more inclusive?

We hear from exhausted leaders every day. For example: Majority white leadership teams are provided talking points to tackle racism in team meetings – Even though most of their corporate career, they were warned to avoid discussing race.

And, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) leaders are exhausted from managing “white awakenings” from friends and colleagues. One black leader confessed devastation after a white colleague came up to her, earnestly, and said, “We’ve been friends for over a decade, but I never really thought of you as black.”

People leaders are facing different individual and personal challenges while also trying to support their teams with integrity and respect.

Burnout. Numbness. Exhaustion. Pain.

All within the context of a pandemic?

Building an inclusive culture in the workplace does not happen overnight.

This work is messy. Unraveling our own biases around race and learning how to have conversations about race with vulnerability and integrity is a lifelong process, full of mistakes and missteps.

Leaning into using the tenets of improv as tools to unravel our biases is an ideal lens to take on when doing this work – using improvisational skills allows us to make mistakes and grow from them.

True improvisers know that learning from mistakes allows us to transform into our next best self.

What can we do? Following are three best practices that ImprovEdge training experiences use to move organizational cultures forward in meaningful and sustainable ways, while supporting employee morale and team integrity. These techniques have proven successful in helping individuals feel seen, heard, and valued.

Different roles? Different training.

It’s crucial to create tiered training to address the specific challenges leaders and individual contributors face, while also creating transparency at all levels. The training must have:

  • Multiple opportunities for role play/practice. Improvisers are always rehearsing for the unexpected, and we should do the same when it comes to this challenging work. Learning a new fact does not change a behavior- we must practice the interactions based on the facts we’ve learned.
  • Space for participants to ask questions in a private way so they don’t feel “called out” or embarrassed by their questions. Participants must feel like they can connect with our team about the challenges they are facing and be vulnerable so they can unravel habits that are negatively impacting their team.
  • A common language for all participants to learn. While the skills they are practicing may be different, the language in the inclusion space has a clear vocabulary. Words like “bias” and “privilege” can elicit different assumptions – it’s best to agree on and communicate set definitions so everyone can move forward with similar understanding.

Not every non-white person at your company is passionate about Inclusion.

As a white person, I can’t imagine moving through the world as a non-white person. I can say that all white people are not a monolith, we all have different values, subcultures and communities. Why would we assume all black people want to do the difficult work of unraveling racist systems and practices? Moreover, why would we expect black employees to do this work ON TOP of their roles with no additional compensation?

We know at ImprovEdge, the best improvisers DON’T make assumptions. Don’t assume who at your organization has the energy or interest in diversity/equity/inclusion when it isn’t part of their role. Have authentic conversations with black employees to allow those employees to say ‘NO’ to leading work if it’s not part of their role.

At ImprovEdge, we create space for white leaders to work through their challenges on race separately from non-white leaders in a process called caucusing. This process gives space for BIPOC leaders so they not pejoratively impacted by the processing of their white colleagues. BIPOC leaders also have caucusing sessions (guided by our team) with space to process through their challenges in the inclusion space as well.

Inclusion initiatives must be everywhere, not just on a DEI Committee.

The instinct to “give it to a committee” is everywhere in organizations. That approach is functional when the committee has goals and agenda that are paired with resources and leadership champions to drive the initiatives. Your entire culture should be about inclusion. Every action, every strategic goal.

At ImprovEdge, we believe in the power of positivity, the importance of finding the silver lining. So, let me share the silver lining of DEI work with you: while there is always more work to do, you can celebrate the progress you and your teams are making every day.

Then, stay on the balls of your feet (as we say on the improv stage!), ready to engage and look forward to the next challenge.

This article is 100% written by a human named Karen Hough. She is the Founder & CEO of ImprovEdge, in the top 4% of women-owned businesses in the US, a 3-time Amazon bestselling author, Yale grad, wife and mom of three.