Race, Ethnicity, and Social Justice: Questions that Matter in Learning & Development

Categories: Diversity & Inclusion

With the complex issues of race, ethnicity, and social justice emerging worldwide, global companies have plenty of pressing questions. There were a number of such questions in our most recent webinar on the topic. Here we’re pleased to bring you selected questions — along with answers from our Aperian experts — in the first of a three-part series. 

  1. Learning and Development
  2. Systemic Change
  3. Inclusive Leadership

The first group of questions focuses on LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT within organizations. In the coming weeks, we’ll also address the topics of SYSTEMIC CHANGE and CORPORATE LEADERSHIP.

What does diversity mean outside of the US? 

Diversity outside of the U.S. can take a variety of forms. We recommend an approach that considers several different diversity variables and the mix that takes priority in each country. It is difficult for anyone to become an expert on each country; however, facilitated conversations can quickly surface important factors for local employees. For example, in China, key elements of diversity include Regional Origin, Socioeconomic Status, Educational Background, and Age. In India, on the other hand, Ethnicity, Language, Religion, and Gender are critical, along with Socioeconomic Status.

How are racial conversations at work in Europe different than in the US?

Many European organizations have Inclusion and Diversity issues other than race that are assigned top priority, including gender equity, immigration, and an aging workforce. Race or ethnicity can be an important issue as well (e.g., minority immigrant populations in the U.K., France, or Germany), but they are approached differently, often as one element of a more prominent topic such as immigration.

The demographic balance throughout Europe is commonly quite different from the U.S. — in the U.K., for instance, the largest immigrant group is Asian, while blacks comprise a smaller segment of the overall population. In France, a primary source of immigrants has been North Africa, particularly Algeria and Morocco, which both were formerly French colonies. European nations have also been transformed by the free movement of citizens within the European Union, particularly Eastern Europeans moving to countries such as Germany, Denmark, or the U.K. In addition, a number of countries have taken in large numbers of political and economic refugees from the Middle East and Africa. 

Social tensions in European countries and workplaces today can be linked to the movement of workers within the EU and its implications for job security, along with questions about whether non-European immigrants are undermining cultural and religious traditions

How do we center a global conversation around unconscious bias when each of our regions handles diversity and inclusion from a different lens? 

We recommend incorporating relevant local examples of bias that can be linked to a common general framework of unconscious bias, such as the CIAO model. (1) For example, there is revealing data on how minority job candidates are discriminated against in the U.S., Germany, and Malaysia. Having a local or regional example makes it easier for employees to feel that it is applicable to their own workplace context. “Status bias,” to offer another illustration, is common in much of Asia. This form of bias links status and authority to individuals with particular characteristics such as seniority, elite education, male gender, and association with prestigious institutions — most employees in the region would recognize it immediately.

When introducing the concept of bias, it is best to note that this is something that we all have as part of our basic neurological functioning. Such an approach enables program participants to explore how bias works and how to mitigate it while also avoiding “blaming and shaming” in a training context. Rather than launching immediately into a discussion of bias, we recommend that facilitators introduce specific inclusive behaviors that employees can use proactively and then examine bias as a frequent obstacle to implementing our good intentions.(2)

What is your advice for global organizations currently busy with training modules on race and ethnicity? How can they move beyond a U.S.-centric approach and recognize the dynamics playing out in different countries?

Training on race and ethnicity needs to be grounded in local contexts, too. While this is a central and enduring issue in the U.S., it may or may not be regarded as being a top priority elsewhere, particularly in countries that have very few racial or ethnic minorities. 

However, every country in the world does have insiders and outsiders, haves and have-nots, forms of privilege and discrimination, and the need to build bridges between people who regard each “other” — perhaps those from a different region, ethnic group, or social class — with suspicion. When training modules are broadened to go beyond the specific lens of race and ethnicity and supplemented with relevant local examples, they are more likely to result in meaningful skill-building and lasting insights. (3)

How do you best build empathy across a large organization?

Empathy is often best evoked through personal narratives. When an executive or a minority professional has a forum to share their own background and life experience, this is much more likely to be perceived by others as authentic and memorable. The exchange of such personal narratives also enables managers and employees to have a far deeper understanding of each other and how to build real engagement. 

A common challenge for frontline managers in building empathy is that they have been trained to avoid a long list of “don’ts,” but aren’t so sure about what they should actually “do.” Concerned about being overly intrusive or becoming involved in conflicts that could reflect badly on everyone involved, they tend to avoid building deeper relationships or initiating difficult conversations. As a starting point for drawing out personal narratives and for building empathy, it is useful to help such managers know which questions are important to ask, such as:

  • Prior experience: What kind of prior work experience do you have that would help me to understand your background? 
  • Professional interests: What are you most interested in doing or learning?
  • Strengths and areas for improvement: What would you identify as your own greatest strengths and/or areas for improvement? 
  • Current challenges or concerns: Do you see any particular challenges or concerns about your current tasks? 
  • Motivation: What kind of work do you find most exciting? What do you like most about your current role, and what would you like to do more or less if we can arrange it? 
  • Career plans, aspirations: Do you have any thoughts about the next steps in your career? Is there anything you are currently doing that you would like to do more of or to learn more about? 
  • Requests for support: How can I best support you? What can I do to be a better manager?
  • Open-ended: What else would you like me to know about you? Is there anything else you would like to discuss?


With Aperian Global’s Inclusive Behaviors Inventory (IBI), you can measure inclusion in the workplace and use dynamic data to drive real progress.



  1. The acronym, CIAO, refers to four primary forms of unconscious bias: Confirmation Bias, Insider Bias, Attribution Bias, and Overconfidence Bias.
  2.  For more on inclusive behaviors, see Inclusive Leadership: From Awareness to Action by Ernest Gundling and Cheryl Williams, 2019.
  3. Adopting a global perspective on race and ethnicity is the topic of our recent Featured Insight. We recommend incorporating global examples of the kind offered here, and also referring to the questions in our new QuickGuide, “Is Your Current Approach to Equity Truly Global? Steps like these can help to create an informed and structured approach for making the organization’s approach to race and ethnicity more global.