6 Essential Steps to Handling Racism in the Workplace

Emma Harris
Emma Harris

HR and Career Expert

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Illustration of a group of White women whispering about a Black woman in an office

Although there have been great strides in cultural and societal evolution over the last century, racial discrimination in the workplace is still a huge obstacle.

In 2019, Glassdoor’s Diversity & Inclusion Study (PDF) reported that, on average, 30% of all participants had experienced or witnessed racism in the workplace. The study, which was conducted in the US, the UK, Germany and France, demonstrated results as high as 42% in the US.

In our workplaces, it’s becoming increasingly important for CEOs, executives, directors and HR professionals to value individuality and take steps to promote equal opportunities. We must ensure that no employee fears reprisals for reporting racism at work or feels it becomes necessary to quit their job due to situations of institutional racial abuse.

No matter the size or industry of an organisation, it’s vital that we find ways of dealing with and, ultimately, eliminating racism from the workplace.

1. Understand what constitutes workplace racism

In today’s society, although the idea makes many uncomfortable, it’s crucial that we accept that racism at work exists. In order to find ways of handling it, we firstly must understand what can be considered as racism in the workplace.

There are different kinds of racism that can severely affect a company, its employees, reputation and operations. Discrimination has evolved. When we talk about racism in the workplace today, we should be aware of hostile attitudes and aggressive behaviours towards people of a different race. However, the predominant form of racism at work today is subtle, often difficult to identify and particularly hard to prove.

Nowadays, most incidents of racial abuse reported are related to situations where people of ethnic minorities are ignored, criticised and overlooked due to assumptions and stereotypes. This type of bias can be conscious or unconscious, but it’s just as damaging.

The benefits of a diverse workplace are endless, including increased productivity, engagement, greater talent retention and a happier, healthier work environment. These and many other advantages are the reasons why following the steps indicated below will help improve diversity and tolerance in your organisation.

2. Train up your workforce

Similar to a classroom, our place of employment is often teaching us more than we know. And, like a classroom, we need to ensure that our colleagues are collaborating with people from different walks of life. Forming teams with employees and executives of varying ethnicities, religions and minority groups will demonstrate a true commitment to diversity.

As an initial step to managing diversity in your company, you could design diversity and inclusion (D&I) workshops, forums or training sessions. Be mindful of the importance of getting people from all levels of the company to participate and aim to keep your conversations engaging.

Often, racism and discrimination are not implicit or even intentional but rather the result of ignorance or a lack of exposure to diversity. That is why employing team-building strategies and group workshops and developing a training programme are all signs of an effective D&I agenda.

Many companies choose to bring in external help to guide racial inclusion action plans and seminars on unconscious bias in order to raise awareness. In any case, it’s essential to ensure these training sessions are in keeping with the company’s values and policies. They must be well-communicated throughout the organisation and take everyone who will be involved into account.

3. Establish the right policies

In order to create, modify and implement the most appropriate policies and protocols in your company, you could start by conducting relevant internal research. This can be done through surveys, interviews and focus groups where employees are given the chance to contribute and provide feedback. This will present your company with accurate data to work from so that you can make better, more informed decisions.

Another key factor to consider when determining guidelines is to revise any existing policies, evaluating the language used and concepts for signs of bias or discrimination. Be careful to look out for anything that could exclude candidates or employees based on racial features.

Make sure people are aware of the fact that racist actions or messages are unacceptable in your company culture. An effective way of doing this is by shaping one of the organisation’s core values around tolerance and inclusivity. Putting diversity on the long-term agenda at your company will help to foster an unbiased atmosphere throughout the organisation.

Reviewing your HR approach

It’s important to remember to re-examine your internal HR processes, such as talent acquisition and promotion schemes. There are various ways to shape the selection and evaluation process that minimise discrimination.

Research has shown that candidates from minority backgrounds suffer discrimination early on in the recruitment process. Many minority candidates have taken to ‘whitening’ their résumés to boost their chances of being called for an interview. This means that some Black, Asian and Hispanic applicants have taken to removing references to their race from their résumés. This practice includes adapting names, deleting information of membership to cultural associations, and even omitting achievements that could hint to a specific race.

Companies should be very mindful of their recruitment processes and try to eliminate any unconscious bias that could be detrimental. Blind recruitment and the use of ATS software are two methods being adopted by many organisations to support inclusive HR policies.

Avoiding pay and promotion racism

Furthermore, performance evaluations and pay schemes are among the most important aspects to be reviewed in order to ensure equality between employees of different races.

A report by the Economic Policy Institute in 2019 on the state of working America wages displays the pay gap between races. This research has demonstrated an increase of nearly 4% in the wage gap between Black and White working Americans since 2000. As the pay gap grows, it’s vital that your company commits to an equal pay initiative. This will ensure you retain diverse talent for the success of your employees and your business.

Generally speaking, employees from ethnic minorities have fewer possibilities to make alliances with top executives in the corporate world and demonstrate their accomplishments. This can be due to any number of factors, both socially and racially motivated. However, as a result, racial discrimination is edging its way into the performance evaluation process and can lead to fewer promotion opportunities for ethnic minorities.

From the beginning of an employment contract, it’s essential that all HR and legal teams are aware of these factors to eliminate acts of racial discrimination at work.

4. Create a safe space

Too often, people don’t want to acknowledge that they’ve been witness to or a victim of racism, especially in a professional environment. Challenging racism at work can only be achieved by coming to terms with its existence and being willing to talk about it. To create open dialogue, you’ll need to find a place where people’s voices can be heard.

Whether it be a physical office or a digital space, employees need to be able to reach out in a safe environment and find the relevant resources. Staff may want to anonymously report an incident or could be looking to openly discuss the challenge of discrimination in the workplace. Either situation requires a place where people can feel comfortable to come forward without fear of argument or the possibility of losing their job.

Once you’ve defined a clear way for employees to express their concerns, you can begin tracking racially motivated incidents to identify causes and solutions.

Discussing racism at work is not a pleasant activity and can cause unease and discomfort. Under totally normal circumstances, people will often feel defensive and some may even deny any possibility of discrimination by themselves or colleagues. It’s important to listen to everyone’s point of view without belittling their situation or comparing.

The aim is to create a dialogue that unites, encouraging discussion but not ultimately requiring any singular employee to resolve the situation. Sometimes, by simply hearing about people’s experiences, changes can be made on an individual or group level that will benefit the organisation.

Remember to get company leaders engaged in the conversation. This will help normalise the topic and help employees feel safe to speak up. Treat any dialogue around the issue of racism in the workplace similar to performance evaluations, not looking for blame but to receive feedback and discuss the next steps.

Cultivating challenging conversations and dealing with conflict is part of the job of HR specialists and other corporate executives. It allows them to create an environment where employees feel secure and valued. In any reality, difficult conversations have to happen in order to progress.

5. Develop an action plan

Another way to build awareness of workplace discrimination is to ensure that you take a firm and consistent approach to any reported incidents of racism at work. It’s vital to use any cases as learning curves and not to turn a blind eye. Your staff need to know you’re behind them and that you take all examples of racial discrimination seriously.

With this in mind, you can create both a preventive and corrective action system. This way your company can continuously improve, working towards a zero-tolerance policy for racism at work. Every company should have a plan in place that dictates policy and how to behave in certain situations to avoid possible unconscious bias or unwanted discrimination.

A preventive action plan allows you to realise where problems may occur and put into practice protocols that can prevent them, whereas a corrective action plan permits you to see where a problem has occurred and tackle it on the spot.

Be consistent and don’t be afraid to take disciplinary action where necessary. Seemingly innocent scenarios should also be taken seriously. Many acts of racism in the workplace can seem innocuous but if they’re allowed to go uncorrected, they may create an unhealthy working environment.

Nevertheless, it’s essential to consider all factors involved in any reports, as discrimination can also sometimes be unintentional. Situations of racism could also come down to misunderstandings based on cultural differences. Remember to act according to the company’s action plan before firing someone due to reports of discrimination.

6. Know the law

Knowing and understanding local, national and, in some cases, international law is essential to avoid problems with racism in the workplace.

Each country has their own version of the Equal Opportunities Act which outlines the rights and responsibilities of employers and employees regarding discrimination in the workplace. These regulations identify the unlawful conduct to be considered in employment and prohibit unfavourable treatment or harassment on the grounds of race.

Your corporate strategy in this area should address the various facets of racial discrimination in the workplace. These include acts of institutional racism (eg: related to pay systems, promotion schemes, etc) and less overt discrimination (eg: microaggressions). Depending on the country or legal governing area, you must ensure that your company abides by the correct existing laws and provides resources for employees who wish to know their rights.

Not only is it vital to comply with the relevant legal requirements but it’s also key to offer the necessary support. Within your HR or legal department, you should ensure to have available adequate comprehensive advice for any employees with race-related concerns. Additionally, in line with the company’s corrective action process, the HR team should launch an internal investigation in the case of any reported incidents.

Racism isn’t conducive to a productive and healthy work environment. A tolerant and diverse workforce, however, is more likely to improve morale and productivity, retain talent and create an inclusive and safe company culture.

Remember: these guidelines won’t completely eliminate racism from the workplace, but they’re a great place to start. If you know of other initiatives that help create diverse and tolerant workplaces, share them with us in the comments section below!