Tackling racism at work: How to spot it and stop it
Updated 17th December 2022
Evidence shows that diverse workplaces are more capable of innovation and creative problem-solving. But, despite that, there are still many employees who experience discrimination as a daily part of their working lives. And racial discrimination is among the worst. So, let’s take a look at how common these experiences are, and how employers should be tackling racism at work.
The prevalence of workplace racism
For people fortunate enough to live lives unaffected by racial discrimination, it’s easy to see it as a problem of the past. In fact, the Equality Act 2010 specifically forbids discrimination due to race. But unfortunately, the reality of it isn’t so simple. A racist employer might use a lack of oversight to break these laws. But they may also find ways of obeying the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit.
City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA) published data gathered in partnership with Lloyds Banking Group. It showed that nearly half of Black UK employees have experienced racism at work. The study also found that 26% of East Asian workers, 23% of South Asian workers and 24% of mixed-race employees have experienced similar discrimination.
Of the employees who reported being affected by racism at work, 56% stated that it had a direct negative impact on their mental health. And, although 60% of all employees reported that the pandemic has seriously affected their mental health, BAME employees report that this has increased the amount of workplace racism they face. Overall, 44% of BAME employees felt pressured to change their behaviour at work. By comparison, only a quarter of white British employees reported the same.
We know that’s quite a lot of statistics to hit you with at once. But the overall message is clear: Racial discrimination is still a prominent issue affecting vast numbers of employees. Employers have a moral responsibility remove bigotry from workplace culture. And that means that tackling racism at work needs to be a top priority.
What does racism at work look like?
What do you think of when you imagine racism?
It might well look something like a half-drunk skinhead hurling racial slurs until they’re red in the face. But that’s far from the only form that racial discrimination can take. If it were, it would be much easier to deal with. Unfortunately, tackling racism at work is more difficult when it comes to the subtler ways people can discriminate against each other.
Direct racial discrimination
This refers to when someone is actively singled out due to their race. An (admittedly illegal) example would be if a business had a policy against hiring Black employees. Though it doesn’t just apply to policy, but also general behaviour. So, an agency sending a business a white employee to fit with their ‘traditional attitude’ would still be direct discrimination, despite not resulting from specific policies.
Racially motivated abuse
This is definitely the easiest form of racism to spot. You don’t need us to tell you that using slurs or being otherwise aggressive, intimidating or rude to someone because of their race is beyond vile. Not to mention blatantly illegal. But, if direct discrimination and abuse were the only layers to bigotry, then tackling racism at work would be much simpler.
Sometimes, workplace rules and policies can have an unequal effect on the employees they apply to. Policies that unfairly affect people from different cultures or ethnic backgrounds can sow resentment and drive those employees away. A common example would be the dress codes in some businesses. These dress codes often have specific requirements. For example, things like hairstyle, often singling out styles that are natural for Black employees, forcing them to adopt ‘whiter’ hairstyles to fit in.
Assumptions and stereotypes
You know what they say about assuming: It makes a racist out of you and me. Or something like that. Assumptions and stereotypes may seem harmless when you’re not on the receiving end. But, when you’re constantly put into the same series of boxes by everyone around you, it can wear away at a person’s self-image and mental wellbeing. For instance, you might accidentally exclude a Middle Eastern employee from after-work pub trips because you assume they don’t drink.
While the first two categories are examples of direct racism, the latter two are examples of microaggressions. A microaggression is a subtle display of prejudice or dislike. Unlike direct forms of racism, they aren’t always intentional. Most people will likely have to put some effort into overcoming those habits, but nobody's perfect. This is one reason why addressing racism at work can be easier said than done.
People tend to get defensive when put on the spot. They can feel like you're accusing them of direct, aggressive racism. Even when you're just trying to address a non-malicious but potentially harmful assumption.
How to spot racism at work
Before we get into tackling racism at work, we wanted to give you a few signs of workplace racism to be on the lookout for:
- A lack of racial diversity on the employee or management level.
- BAME employees frequently getting passed over for promotions and raises.
- Behavioural double standards (are BAME employees more likely to receive disciplinary action?).
- BAME employees being excluded from workplace social functions.
- Lack of respect for culture, such as holidays belonging non-Christian religions.
How to take action against workplace racism
If you’re committed to tackling racism at work as an employer, then you’re on the right track. We’ve talked about how statistically prevalent it is, and we’ve talked about how to see the signs. But now, it’s time to get into the nitty gritty of tackling racism at work.
- Spread awareness and discussion: You need to keep the conversation going. Prior research has shown that as many as 55% of employees are afraid to discuss diversity and inclusion at work. This is due to fear of being seen as excessively politically correct. But the only way to overcome this is to keep chipping away at it.
- Build anti-racism into your job training: Embedding anti-racism into your onboarding and job training can give employees the tools to check their own habits. Effective employee education is essential for overcoming deeply internalised racial prejudices that affect our behaviours.
- Promote diversity in your organisation: And, finally, the clearest path to a workplace free of discrimination is to make your workplace as diverse as possible. We don’t just mean hiring people from different backgrounds, but also supporting their career development. Research shows that BAME employees can massively benefit from workplace mentorship, especially if their mentor shares a similar background with common experiences.
When it comes to giving your people a voice, they all need an equal share. So, you need to be sure your managers have the means to check in with all their people, and that they're engaging in proper two-way feedback.