Racism at work: how to stop discrimination in the workplace


Jane Farrell is Co-Founder of EW Group and one of our leading consultants. She is a specialist in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, organisational change and cultural adaptability. With over three decades of experience, EW Group puts anti-racism training at the forefront of its diversity and inclusion programmes.

With more and more organisations trying to improve workplace diversity and equity, tackling racism with skill and confidence is one of the litmus tests of success.

In the UK, racial discrimination in the workplace is illegal under the Equality Act 2010 (previous complaints were covered by the Race Relations Act 1976), so tackling it is a legal necessity in the UK, and in many other countries too, and it is an ethical necessity across the globe.

In this guide, we explore what is meant by racism, examples of it, and what businesses and their leaders can do to stop racial discrimination in the workplace.


Examples of racism at work

Using the UK as an example, under the Equality Act, there are four types of discrimination that constitute racism at work, and here is a quick summary:

  • Direct racial discrimination – If you are treated unfairly because of your race. This might mean being denied a promotion because “your type wouldn’t fit in”, or not being allowed to visit a client because “they are quite traditional, so we’ll send *a white employee* instead”.
  • Indirect racial discrimination – If workplace policies or decisions discriminate against you or put you at a disadvantage due to your race. This could take the form of bans on headwear or hairstyles that disproportionally impact those of a certain race or demanding overseas job applicants hold UK qualifications. These rules can sometimes look fair as they apply to everyone, but they actually have adverse impact on people who are Black/Asian.
  • Racial harassment – If you are degraded, offended, or humiliated by another person on account of your race. This can include obvious insults or remarks, but also any behaviour that infringes on one’s dignity or creates a negative, hostile environment.
  • Racial victimisation – If you are poorly treated after submitting a complaint regarding your race. This could mean being ostracised or unfairly disciplined while the complaint is being handled.

Racism is systemic and structural, and leaders need to understand how racism ‘works’ in organisations in order to eliminate it. In the University of Manchester’s 2019 Racism at Work survey, 70% Black Asian staff said they had experienced racial harassment at work during the previous five years, and 60% felt their employer had unfairly treated them due to their race.


What businesses and leaders can do to stop racism at work

Racism is a real and pressing issue in society and in the workplace. Institutionalised racism is woven into our systems, processes and organisations. White people benefit from racism in the workplace even if the benefit is not wanted (if we are white we are simply more likely to get the job), whereas Black/Asian staff are systematically disadvantaged including being more likely to be disciplined, and receive less support for promotion.

A substantial body of evidence already exists detailing the impact of institutional racism, and also the intersections of, for example, race, social class and sex. The findings from the 2017 McGregor-Smith Review investigated the issues affecting Black or Asian people in the workplace which identified underemployment, where people would like to work more hours than they do, nearly a third greater than it is for white workers. It also identified a 12% gap in the employment rate between Black or Asian and white workers, which directly impacts the UK’s ethnic pay gap – learn more in our guide.

Tackling racial discrimination at work isn’t just an ethical issue, it offers benefits for businesses too. The McGregor-Smith Review found that full representation of Black or Asian people in the labour market would increase the size of the UK economy by £24 billion, or 1.3% of GDP. And research by McKinsey found that ethnically diverse companies were 35% more likely to outperform non-diverse ones.

For lasting change and equality to take hold within organisations, inclusive leaders and managers – particularly those that are white, and therefore more likely to be at the top of organisations – must take action.

Educate and train all leaders and staff

It’s crucial that all staff are knowledgeable and skilled in recognising and tackling racism.

Being an inclusive leader or manager should not be discretionary or something that only some people demonstrate day in and day out. Whatever their seniority, all managers must understand and practice what it means to deliver equity, diversity, and inclusion, and be able to provide evidence of what they say and do to tackle racism. Doing so will ensure the company is utilising the skills of all staff and delivering to diverse customers too, as well as legally compliant.

Asking the question, “What precisely have you said and done to address institutionalised racism, and how are you measuring whether it’s working?” is a good place to start, because it will help build on what is already being done and what needs to be done in the future.

If staff cannot answer that question then it is the responsibility of the organisation to ensure everyone knows what actions they are required to take in their role, be they a supervisor, manager, or the CEO.

It’s important that this process takes place in a structured, professional way. Those with in-house D&I responsibilities can enhance their ability to progress your diversity agenda by enrolling on a management programme to gain an equality and diversity qualification. And staff should be educated via diversity and inclusion training, and self study, rather than asking members of Black or Asian or other minoritised communities to explain things.

This training should be woven into all talent and people processes and frequently revisited to ensure it makes a continued, sustained impact.

To kick off the education process, there are plenty of brilliant articles and books available, such as Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, and Chris Lambert’s article, A Letter to my White Friends. To continue the learning, also see our list of anti-racism resources – TV, film, books, podcasts and articles that have developed our understanding of race and anti-racism.


Understand the problem – gather data

All good leadership and management require a sophisticated analysis of how a person’s ethnicity leads to structural advantage or disadvantage. This allows decision-making to be properly informed by the facts and metrics, as opposed to unfounded impressions that might compound the issue.

This involves designing and committing to processes that collect diversity data. This might include:

  • The ethnicity of staff who are on the receiving end of disciplinary action
  • The ethnic make-up of teams, across different bands of seniority
  • An ethnicity pay gap, alongside the gender pay gap

From here, you need to regularly analyse the data, report the results to all managers and leaders, and create action plans to address imbalances.

For more information on gathering diversity data, view our workplace guide.

Be accountable

Companies need to approach racism at work with passion, commitment, and skill to make positive change. Part of this means holding themselves accountable, from the top, via targets that are regularly and transparently reported on.

This involves:

  • Treating complaints with respect, properly investigating their claims in a fair and unbiased manner
  • The problem should be solved in line with previously defined workplace policies on racism at work – such as a zero-discrimination policy
  • Processes and working approaches should be assessed in line with the complaint – did they solve the problem or make it worse? Did the complainant end up worse off after reporting internally – it is still quite common for the complainant to be moved to another part of the business, as though that solves the issue
  • The company communicating what has been learnt, what actions were taken, and acknowledge the disproportionate impact on Black or Asian staff

Examine and change your processes

Processes matter when it comes to stopping racial discrimination in the workplace. Following a racist incident, companies should conduct a thorough review into which aspects of their organisational culture allowed the incident to occur, and address the issue so that such incidents are not repeated.

Recruitment is a key process that should be analysed: Black or Asian staff have to send over 60% more applications before they receive a response than white British applicants, according to 2019 research from the centre for Social Investigation.

Learn more about safeguarding your recruitment processes against discrimination in our eight-step guide to inclusive recruitment.

Line management is also key – are managers being given the tools to support all members of staff, and not only those who are ‘like’ them in relation to ethnicity or other aspects of their identity? Line managers need to understand how their unconscious bias can affect their treatment of some groups of staff.

Deal with systemic racism at work

All too often when dealing with the aftermath of racism at work, an individual is blamed for the racist behaviour – ignoring the potential culpability of others within the organisation or the business itself. This is the ‘bad apple’ excuse, and it will only mean the cycle of discrimination continues. If x behaves in a racist way, it tells leaders of what they need to do differently to ensure the standards of behaviour are clear and enforced.

The full idiom is ‘a bad apple spoils the bunch’ – the entire barrel is ruined and should, therefore, be discarded. As such, we must consider any racism in the workplace as a symptom of the systems in place.

Acts of racism are often facilitated or allowed by the business, and only by reviewing the entire ‘barrel’ can we ensure there are no ‘bad apples’ that are allowed to infect the whole.


Listen to groups that are or may be discriminated against

Listen to what groups who experience racism within and outside of organisations are saying about their lived experiences of micro and macro aggressions. In workplaces, in the criminal justice system, housing, and politics, white managers in particular need to keep listening, respectfully, and with humility.

It goes without saying that all complaints should be taken seriously. There is still a lot of work to be done here; in the 2019 Racism at Work survey, 40% of ethnic minority individuals that had reported a racist incident said their complaint was disregarded or they were seen as making trouble.

It is also worth remembering that so-called micro aggressions often don’t feel micro to people on the receiving end, especially because these aggressions have probably been experienced 100’s of times before.

Businesses should ask how they can support the person on the receiving end of this harassment, act quickly against the perpetrators, then take the learnings on board.

What to watch out for when tackling racism at work

Combatting racial discrimination in the workplace is not a simple process. It’s an uncomfortable subject with significant implications, but that should never get in the way of action. There are some things you can do to make the process more effective and equitable for all involved:

  • Don’t say “it’s much worse in that country than it is here”, “all lives matter”, or “it’s better than it was”
  • Deeply reflect on what you and your company say and do to tackle racism. Great leaders are proactively anti-racist
  • Think through how you personally can address systemic discrimination in measurable ways
  • Ensure you do not let guilt get in the way; guilt doesn’t deliver change
  • All truly inclusive leaders know that this work is not only needed when terrible events happen, but as part of the everyday.

Addressing equality, diversity, and inclusion, and racism in particular, can be complex, nuanced, and challenging, and must be correctly handled. It is impossible to be an excellent leader without proactively addressing racism. It takes commitment, knowledge and skills to take specific practical actions, day in, day out. The benefits of doing so for individuals, groups, companies and society are immense.

Ensure racism has no place in your workplace

Get in touch