Tips for difficult but critical conversations

3 people wearing masks look at a tablet while using a computer.

An inclusive workplace can be a comfortable place to have uncomfortable conversations. Employers can address difficult topics like race by creating a culture of inclusion where every employee can share their thoughts, feelings and experiences.

Strategic, measured and deliberate approaches are particularly helpful in establishing safe spaces for employees to engage as companies, workers and their communities pay more attention to race relations amid social unrest.

“We can’t let the fear of imperfection keep us from trying to make some sort of advancement in this conversation and to have some dialogue with our teams,” said Douglas Edwards, senior vice president of Workplace Experience for Humana.

Humana launched a series of race-related conversations in the workplace when social unrest began rising in the summer of 2020. “We wanted to have a safe space for associates of color to react, to respond, to vent, or to just talk about what they were seeing and to react to it,” said Chris Johnson, director of Inclusion and Diversity for Humana.

Discussion opportunities included talks hosted by a network resource group (NRG) for Humana associates of color, ally conversations with other NRGs, town halls, small group gatherings and one-to-one meetings.

Inclusion is important

Engaging employees in uncomfortable conversations can be difficult. Even before COVID-19 and social unrest became workplace issues, 4 of 10 racial- or ethnic-minority employees were at least slightly uncomfortable discussing identity-related issues at work, according to McKinsey & Co.

More than one-quarter of racial- or ethnic-minority respondents said they avoided talking about these topics when they would have liked to discuss them “largely because they were unsure how colleagues would respond or they didn’t want to be seen as different,” researchers wrote.1

A company can be diverse in terms of demographics like race, gender or sexual orientation, but it must create a culture of inclusion to go beyond diversity and to become truly inclusive. A truly inclusive workplace allows all employees to flourish, with everyone benefiting from diverse ideas, skills, and engagement, Society for Human Resource Management research shows. The retention rate of those workers increases in an inclusive workplace as well.2

Creating a top-down culture of inclusion

Increasing diversity among leaders helps create a culture of inclusion. At Humana, people of color account for 16% of senior leaders, 26% of management and 39% of associates. “We have associates in the organization that see leaders that they interact with every day that don’t look like them,” Johnson said.

Inclusive leadership is also key to creating a culture in which everyone feels they belong and is comfortable expressing their uniqueness. A TalentCulture blog post on how to intentionally create a more inclusive culture recommends adopting 4 inclusive leadership behaviors:

  • Empowerment
  • Accountability
  • Courage
  • Humility3

Leaders do not necessarily have all the answers. “Part of being an inclusive leader is about being vulnerable,” Johnson said.

Inclusive leadership includes recognizing personal biases. Humana encourages leaders to reflect on their identity and intention before starting a race-related conversation. Leaders are encouraged to write out their thoughts to the following statements:

  • Talking about race is challenging because ...
  • Talking about race is necessary because ...
  • Talking about race is beneficial because ...

Recognizing and managing their personal unconscious biases can help leaders create a more inclusive culture. Leaders can connect with employees as individuals and teams by sharing personal experiences and providing opportunities to discuss current events and issues that may be difficult.

Discussing race in the workplace

Organizations should prioritize the psychological safety of employees and help them learn the skills they need to engage in inclusive conversations, according to Harvard Business Review. “Companies advance social justice by re-prioritizing the voices of their employees, while soliciting a partnership for navigating the organization’s future,” the authors wrote.4

Humana created safe spaces for employees to share by guiding leaders in how to have race-related conversations. Leaders learned to acknowledge the issues in their communities, to prepare for dialogue and to ask teammates for help.

Ground rules for Humana team members having tough conversations included:

  • Listening to understand
  • Assuming positive intent or choosing to believe that people act and speak to the best of their ability, and for the benefit of others
  • Engaging in dialogue, not debate
  • Customizing the conversation so that others in the group could add their own ground rules

“Associates are going to be honest, as long as they know this will be long-lasting and structural,” Johnson said. “We want to embrace that notion of being comfortable with being uncomfortable. These conversations are all about letting the moment drive the agenda.”


  1. “Understanding Organizational Barriers to a More Inclusive Workplace,” McKinsey & Company, last accessed January 13, 2021,, PDF opens new window.
  2. “6 Steps for Building an Inclusive Workplace,” Society for Human Resource Management, last accessed January 13, 2021,, opens new window.
  3. “How to Intentionally Create a More Inclusive Culture,” TalentCulture, last accessed January 13, 2021,, opens new window.
  4. Erin Dowell and Marlette Jackson, “’Woke-Washing’ Your Company Won’t Cut It,” Harvard Business Review, July 27, 2020, last accessed January 13, 2021,, opens new window.