HR lessons to learn from Uber’s suspension of its DEI chief

Uber put its DEI chief Bo Young Lee on leave recently following employee complaints that her “Don’t Call Me Karen” events were insensitive to people of color.

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Lee, according to a New York Times report, was placed on leave last week as Uber’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and the rideshare giant’s Chief People Officer Nikki Krishnamurthy determine next steps.

The action follows a “Don’t Call Me Karen” event in April and another last week that was billed as an “open and honest conversation about race” and an opportunity to explore the “American white woman’s experience” through the eyes of white women working at Uber, according to an invitation to the event viewed by the Times. However, many participants felt they were receiving a lecture on challenges white women face and being instructed on why “Karen” is a derogatory term, and that Lee was dismissive of concerns raised during the meetings, the Times reported.

Employers need to carefully consider how they approach discussions of race in the workplace, experts say.

See also: Freddie Mac CHRO on race, inequality and HR’s mandate

Consider a do-no-harm approach

Discussions of race in the workplace often involve employees sharing their experiences with race and racism. This can cause a reliving of painful experiences for both the speaker and those in attendance who have experienced similar situations. As a result, this can cause emotional distress, social psychologist Shanna Tiayon notes in a report on how to avoid harm when discussing race at work.

Tiayon, who owns the boutique firm Wellbeing Works, writes that minorities often participate in race dialogues at risk to not only their mental health but also, potentially, to their job status, if managers were to learn of comments made and decide to retaliate. Additionally, Tiayon notes that employers frequently take no follow-up action afterward to improve workplace conditions. 

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In the report, Tiayon cites the need for employers to consider hiring a skilled DEI facilitator who can understand the potential trauma that discussions on race may raise, as well as pick up on microaggressions that may surface during conversations. Trained facilitators also will have self-checked their own biases to ensure those don’t creep into discussions.

Additionally, while it’s important to hold a variety of conversations regarding race, companies need to avoid making the least affected by racism feel the most comfortable in the discussions—to the detriment of racialized employees, says Shereen Daniels, CEO and founder of HR rewired.

“Time and time again, organizations, in a bid to be seen as inclusive, center the feelings—often discomfort—of those least impacted by racism or inequality, in the mistaken belief that this increased awareness and understanding will remove the barriers to racial equity,” Daniels said in a statement.

Laying the groundwork for discussions on race

Managing expectations and identifying goals are a few of the first places for DEI leaders to start, says Ryan Warner, a psychologist specializing in workplace race relations and founder and CEO of RC Warner Consulting.

To help manage expectations, it’s important for employees to know that disagreements do not equal conflict and that they can share different values and perspectives and still validate each others’ experiences and provide empathy.

“Most humans avoid difficult conversations, especially talking about race because race is the most challenging facet of identity to often engage in. We come with different beliefs, identities, values, perspectives and experiences, all of which may lead to conflict and no one wants conflict,” Warner says. “But, ultimately, DEI leaders need to help individuals approach difficult dialogue instead of avoiding it.”

It’s also important to set goals for discussions on race, Warner says. 

For example, the purpose of an initial meeting may be to introduce employees to one another and share their backgrounds. A follow-up meeting may provide opportunities to share past experiences they have faced with issues of race and vulnerability.

It is equally important to have a method in place to measure progress, on such topics as whether employees feel a greater sense of belonging and ability to bring their authentic self to work following a series of sessions on race, Warner says.

See also: How 4 prominent employers are building gender and race equity

Using a BRAVE framework to discuss race issues

One of the methods Warner uses to facilitate race-related discussions is the BRAVE framework, he says. It is designed to help turn difficult conversations into positive outcomes. The acronyms stand for:

  • B – Build intentionality and focus.
  • R – Respect the differences of others in the room.
  • A – Acknowledge the discomfort within the room.
  • V – Validate the experience of historically marginalized groups.
  • E – Emphasize how your company is prioritizing diversity and inclusion efforts.

3 additional approaches to talking about race in the workplace

Warner also uses and recommends a three-step approach to these conversations. 

The first step building a relationship with participants by discussing fears and negative past experiences. For example, Warner will share his own experiences with racism and microaggressions to encourage his client’s employees to share their own experiences or views on race. He also uses the Poll Everywhere website to receive anonymous text responses to questions during race discussions.

A second step is to go deeper in conversations with employees on their attitudes and understanding of race. For example, some participants may believe that racism has never existed in the workplace; challenging them to “go deeper” may prompt them to think about race and social justice issues in a new way.

And lastly, DEI facilitators need to understand that learning occurs differently for different people and at different times. For example, when holding discussions about white privilege and systemic oppression, it can spark emotions of rage, frustration and guilt with participants, including Warner. However, authentically trying to understand others’ viewpoints has helped Warner with his own comfort, confidence and emotional reaction to the conversations.

In fact, he says it’s imperative that DEI facilitators and HR leaders check their own biases.


Dawn Kawamoto, Human Resource Executive
Dawn Kawamoto
Dawn Kawamoto is HR Editor of Human Resource Executive. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered technology business news for such publications as CNET and has covered the HR and careers industry for such organizations as Dice and Built In prior to joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected] and below on social media.