Goldman Sachs’ HR Head on 3 Ways to Talk About Race (and More) in the Workplace

October 3, 2017

Edith Cooper received worldwide attention last year when she published a LinkedIn post addressing race in the workplace. It quickly went viral. As a woman of color in a major leadership position—Goldman Sachs’ Global Head of Human Capital Management—she saw it as her responsibility to call out the elephant in the room.

While the post was provoked by rising tensions over race and policing, it was also extraordinarily personal, revealing the challenges she faces at work, despite her rank and title:

I am frequently asked “what country are you from” (I grew up in Brooklyn). I’ve been questioned about whether I really went to Harvard (I did) or how I got in (I applied). I’ve been asked to serve the coffee at a client meeting (despite being there to “run” the meeting) and have been mistaken as the coat check receptionist at my son’s school event.

The post resonated with readers, getting nearly 17,000 likes and 4,000 comments. Most importantly, it gave other people the courage to address uncomfortable issues in their own companies.

At Talent Connect 2017, Edith shared this story and urged talent professionals to follow suit: you need to address the elephant in your own company. Only by talking about the issues that employees and candidates face—be they around race, gender, sexual orientation, or disabilities—can companies truly build inclusive, thriving cultures.

Why having uncomfortable conversations really matters

Around the time that Edith made her post, when tensions over race and policing were reaching a fever pitch in American discourse, Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein invited Edith and three other black leaders in the company to speak and start a dialogue.

To Edith’s surprise, about one-third of the company’s 35,000 employees tuned into the livestream to hear the conversation. She took it as a sign that people genuinely want to engage with these issues, learn, and make progress—they just don’t always know the best way to do it.  

Edith believes that having these tough, sometimes difficult discussions do more than create a welcoming, inclusive environment: they allow every employee to perform to their potential.

One man told Edith that her post gave him the strength to talk to his coworkers about his hearing impairment: why he was always the first person in the meeting room so he could sit close enough to hear, and how he was only just getting comfortable using his voice. It wasn’t just liberating —his honesty allowed his coworkers to accommodate his needs and made the whole team more productive.

Now he could make sure he heard everything in a meeting, where he might have been too embarrassed to say anything before. Just as importantly, now his coworkers can benefit from his full understanding—by performing to his potential, he’s improved the whole team.

Uncomfortable conversations can create real change

At Goldman Sachs, these discussions have also led to real process changes to reduce bias. Now, instead of limiting their recruitment to the handful of elite schools where they can physically send recruiters, the firm uses technologies like LinkedIn to target as many as 500 schools. This approach allows them to access a more diverse cross-section of candidate and enables them to value skills above pedigree.

The firm also uses more video conferences for the first round of interviews, since they can reduce distance biases and mitigate commonality biases. They’ve additionally started making their interview questions much more structured and rigorous.

Here’s Edith’s three tips on how you can start having difficult conversations at your own company—and ensure they’re productive.

1. Give your coworkers the benefit of the doubt

Start from the assumption that conflicts are driven by differences of opinions, rather than ill intent, says Edith. Assuming the worst in people is an easy way to escalate tensions. Most people mean well, and it’s important to remind ourselves of that. Even if that person really does mean to offend, attributing it to a misunderstanding rather than malice can help you see the conflict from a different perspective.

Edith traces this insight back to her time working with clients: it’s absolutely essential to listen and understand their frame of mind before you can adequately offer a suitable solution. That same practice holds true when you’re trying to navigate an uneasy conversation with coworkers. By understanding where they’re coming from, you can create more opportunities for dialogue.

2. Be present, engaged, and open to others’ perspectives with your body language and mind

Edith’s friend told her she’d be a terrible poker player: you can usually read her emotion from her face, without Edith saying a word. Even if you’re respectful in your actual speech, your body language and expression might be telling a different story.

It’s not enough to just follow a script or use respectful language—you’ve got to actually mean it (and it might be obvious if you don’t). Making a dismissive face when someone is trying to address a sensitive issue isn’t helpful. You’ve got to be truly present and make sure you’re walking into every conversation with an open mind.

3. Follow the golden rule: treat people the way you’d want to be treated

Sometimes, we overlook the basic principles we learned as kids. As Edith wrote in her viral post, “misunderstanding and miscommunication can be tempered by the simplest acts most of us learned as children: listen well, choose your words with care and respect others.”

Edith repeated that lesson at Talent Connect. Reminding ourselves to treat others with the respect that we’d want can help us reset—it’s the difference between talking at each other and actual dialogue.

No person is perfect, and neither is any organization. Extending that humility and respect to our coworkers can make our interactions richer and our understanding deeper.

The advice that Edith will leave her successor

At close of discussion, it was revealed that Edith will soon be leaving Goldman Sachs.

Asked what advice she’d leave for her successor, she summed up the principles that underlie all her tips: “never stop learning, never stop caring, and respect the knowledge of those around you.” Continuing to have uncomfortable conversations isn’t easy, but it is one of the best ways to create change, understanding, and an environment where everyone can thrive.

Watch the full interview below:

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