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Business as a Platform for Change

Difficult Conversations Are Unavoidable — Here’s How One Ethicist Has Them

Rachel Gillum, Ph.D., shares how to have difficult conversations, in the workplace, with your customers, and beyond.

women wearing masks and talking

Having hard conversations at work is not only unavoidable, but it’s also necessary for the success of your business, brand, and company. Technology companies are being called upon by consumers and employees to prioritize the impact of their technology on society, and difficult conversations are key to making effective decisions and innovations.

Years before I joined Salesforce, I was an academic studying the consequences of broad-brush counterterrorism policies on Muslims living in the United States. It took courage for the hundreds of interviewees I spoke with to share their experiences of discrimination. However, these sensitive and vulnerable conversations were critical to informing effective policy proposals that could keep our country safe while protecting the rights of individuals and causing the least amount of harm.

In the Office of Ethical and Humane Use, we work to protect Salesforce technology from being used in a harmful way. For example, as the United States grappled with persistent racial injustices and inequalities this year alongside the role technology plays, Salesforce made clear why we’ve never developed facial recognition. Beyond the technology’s inaccuracy — particularly for communities of color — it can cause harm by creating opportunities for misidentification, political manipulation, discrimination, and more. We continually work to mitigate bias in our AI products and empower others to do the same through Trailhead.

We also took the additional step, like many other companies, to review our use of language in our products to ensure it was as respectful, inclusive, and as free of bias, as possible. Getting to these decisions, however, has required some difficult conversations with and between individuals with different backgrounds and experiences across our organization, many of whom may not see these issues in the same way. Especially in this moment of crisis, it’s on us as leaders to have difficult conversations. Having the conversation is the building block to greater understanding and relationship, and this is one of the ways you can do that.

A trusted process starts with active listening

The first step in engaging in difficult conversations starts with active listening. Doing this can challenge misplaced assumptions and highlight unforeseen perspectives, and establishes a trusted relationship. For example, if you provide a service, it’s imperative you take the time to understand the pain points of your customer. Whether it’s in a meeting or through a survey, seek out ways to receive feedback from a diverse set of stakeholders and understand what your customers are experiencing so you can address emerging problems as they arise.

Actively listening is built into the Office of Ethical and Humane Use’s design. It was through surveying our employees and external experts that we developed our office’s Guiding Principles — human rights, privacy, safety, honesty, and inclusion — which are our compass when navigating difficult topics and crises, such as our COVID-19 response. We established an Ethical Use Advisory Council, made up of external experts, internal executives, and frontline employees, to receive critical feedback on our policy decisions from various points of view. While getting input on our work from these different individuals can slow down the decision-making process, it ultimately results in better policies and features our customers and their end-users benefit from, such as mandating Salesforce bots cannot be used in a way that misleads users into thinking they’re interacting with human beings, and prohibiting the use of AI to make final legal decisions without a human.

Women working in office with face masks
Women working in office with face masks.

Slow down and make space

As ongoing systemic racism came to the forefront of the national conversation following the killing of George Floyd, conversations around police reform and more have had a strong personal impact on employees, often in ways that as leaders, we cannot fully understand without deeply listening.

In response to the ongoing racial injustices in the United States, we established our Racial Equality and Justice Task Force, to help drive systemic change in our workplace and community. The task force is composed of employees of all levels with related expertise to accelerate progress, including employees from our BOLDforce, our Black employee resource group, and more. This has allowed the company to facilitate important but difficult conversations.

We took a step back, considered our potential role and responsibility as a large business, actively listened, aligned our priorities, and developed a plan of action. Importantly, our leaders made the time and investment to implement this plan and see it through.

In having these difficult conversations, here are some of the best practices we’ve learned along the way:

Listen with empathy. Seek to truly understand the point of view of the person or group with whom you are in conversation. Let them be heard, without being defensive. Empathic workplaces tend to enjoy stronger collaboration, less stress, and greater morale.

Provide multiple mechanisms to collect feedback. It’s important to keep in mind there needs to be safe spaces when having direct or sensitive conversations. For example, consider including nonpublic methods of communication, and ensure you collect feedback from all members of the communities you serve.

Work with an external group. Solicit feedback from external groups. Their fresh perspective can help identify unintended consequences, biases, and gaps in your product or solution. Consider utilizing a professional agency or consultancy.

Share how you’ll be held accountable. Having a clear and transparent action plan that shares how you’ll track your success will be key to maintaining the trust you gain during the conversations.

Act as a resource. Let your employees, customers, and communities know you welcome and value their feedback. You might not be able to resolve the issue completely — sometimes, it’s a matter of sharing what your policies and protections are around certain matters, and other times it could be escalating the concern to the right team or person.

Leading through change can be difficult, but in order to truly innovate and build a culture of courageous conversations, you’ll need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Embrace vulnerability as a learning opportunity. How you listen and the decisions you’ll make are impactful to your employees, customers and society at large. Learn more about our commitment: Salesforce.com/EthicalandHumaneUse

Rachel Gillum, Ph.D. is an international security expert with experience working with the U.S. government, multinational corporations, and within academia. Rachel is currently director of Ethical & Humane Use of Technology at Salesforce, where she and her team develop and implement policies to assure the company's technology is not abused or used for harm in society. She is also the published author of "Muslims in a Post-9/11 America: A Survey of Attitudes and Beliefs and Their Implications for U.S. National Security Policy."

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