Racial discrimination and harassment at work – how to lead through the hate

28 January 2016

The level of Islamophobia all around us at the moment is truly frightening.

Every day it seems we’re given another piece of evidence that there’s a bandwagon that many are jumping on. Muslim communities know this, of course, as they are living day-to-day with the consequences of the constant stereotyping and scapegoating.

The rest of us only need to ‘tune in’ for a moment to notice how frequently Muslims are attacked and disparaged. Islamophobia goes hand in hand with racism, and the fire is being fuelled by the level of discourse around refugees and asylum seekers.

A recent cartoon depicts refugees as rats invading Europe, a chilling reminder of the treatment of Jewish refugees in the past. Comments about refugees, asylum seekers and Muslims have somehow become interchangeable. Recent generalisations about Muslim women, unnecessary edicts about the niqab, red doors that make clear where refugees live, brightly coloured bracelets that refugees must wear to get food in Wales, and the furore surrounding Donald Trump all make for a truly toxic mix. And the impact is enormous: threatening how comfortable and welcome entire communities feel, many of whose families have lived in the UK for generations.

Not only are we seeing rising levels of harassment on the streets towards people who are (or deemed to be) Muslim, there is the related dilemma of the ‘permission’ that some now feel they’re being given by this hostile environment to bully and harass in and around the workplace. And this is on top of the levels of unconscious bias we already know impact on who gets which jobs and other opportunities.

As leaders, whatever our own religion, ethnicity or otherwise, it is our responsibility to notice what is happening around us, and to say and do those things that counteract the negative messaging. We’re in a strong position to challenge and question, and to ensure that in our organisations our diverse staff and customers know that we’re not colluding with narratives that foster hate.

Great leaders understand that there are permeable walls between their companies and the outside world, and understand the external as well as the internal landscape well enough to respond.

One of the Chief Executives I’m working with, for example, has begun by raising awareness among her own staff following an increase in cases of harassment affecting both customers and staff. Actions have ranged from increasing staff presence in certain areas, and making it clear to all staff exactly what is expected of them to prevent harassment and the swift action that will result if it occurs. She has also spoken out publicly about Islamophobia and racism, and made sure there are positive images of her diverse staff and customers to help build an inclusive culture.

It would be great to hear what other leaders are saying and doing to counteract the hostile environment.