Racism at work: how to stop discrimination in the workplace
Jane Farrell is Co-Founder of EW Group. She is a specialist in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, organizational change and cultural adaptability.
With more and more organizations trying to improve workplace diversity, eliminating racism at work is one of the first actions that must be taken.
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
Under the Equality Act, a UK legal framework for protecting individual rights, 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 behavior that infringes on one’s dignity or creates a negative, hostile environment.
- Racial victimization – If you are poorly treated after submitting a complaint regarding your race. This could mean being ostracized or unfairly disciplined while the complaint is being handled.
The effect of workplace racism is systemic. In 2021, a Gallup Center report found about one in four Black (24%) and Hispanic employees (24%) in the U.S. report having been discriminated against at work.
What businesses and leaders can do to stop racism at work
Racism is a real and pressing issue in society and in the workplace. Institutionalized racism is woven into our systems, processes and organizations. White people benefit from racism in the workplace (if we are white we are more likely to be chosen for a promotion) whereas, Black/Asian staff are systematically disadvantaged (more likely to be disciplined).
There has been a recent and contested report on race, but 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. According to the findings of the 2017 McGregor-Smith Review, which investigated the issues affecting Black or Asian people in the workplace, underemployment where people would like to work more hours than they do, is nearly a third greater than it is for white workers, and overall there is a 12% gap in the employment rate between Black or Asian and white workers. This directly impacts the USA’s ethnic pay gap – learn more here.
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 labor market would increase the size of the economy of the UK 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 organizations, inclusive leaders and managers – particularly those that are white, and therefore more likely to be at the top of organizations – must take action.
Educate and train all leaders and staff
It’s crucial that you ensure all staff are knowledgeable and skilled in recognizing 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 equality, 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 welcoming, as well as legally compliant.
Asking the question, “What precisely have you said and done to address institutionalized racism, and how are you measuring whether it’s working?” is a good place to start.
If staff cannot answer that question then it is the responsibility of the organization 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 program 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 the Black or Asian communities to explain things.
This training should be woven into all talent and people processes too and revisited to ensure it makes a continued impact.
To kick off the education process, there are plenty of brilliant articles and books available, such as 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 get disciplined
- 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 analyze the data, report the results to all managers and leaders, and create action plans to address imbalances.
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.
- 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 complaining – 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 organizational 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 analyzed: 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 center for Social Investigation.
Learn more about safeguarding your recruitment processes against discrimination in our seven-step guide.
Line management is also key – are managers being given the tools to support all members of staff, 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 behavior – ignoring the potential culpability of others within the organization or the business itself. This is the ‘bad apple’ excuse, and it will only mean the cycle of discrimination continues.
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 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 organizations 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.
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.