In 2019, the University of Manchester conducted its Racism at Work survey, revealing some uncomfortable truths about workplace discrimination in the UK. More than 70% of Black and Minority employees said they had experienced racial harassment in the past five years. On top of this, 60% said bosses or managers had treated them differently due to their race, with a further 30% experiencing bullying or inappropriate questions based on race. Most shocking of all, however, was the way leadership responded when incidents were reported. More than 40% of those who made complaints said incidents resulted in retaliation or were ignored completely.
Despite the damning statistics, many businesses are oblivious to the racial discrimination happening in their workplaces. Perhaps this explains why so many companies still struggle to address the issue. While most businesses have diversity, equity, and inclusion policies, these are often outdated, ineffective, and lacking in depth and understanding. At their most cynical, these initiatives are developed to tick regulatory boxes, but even the most well-intentioned efforts can be misguided.
The truth is that most of us could be doing more to tackle discrimination in our organisations. Even respected institutions like the Supreme Court have come under scrutiny for tolerating race prejudice. But by understanding how racism manifests in modern workplaces, we can develop robust, compassionate solutions that go beyond basic compliance. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most effective strategies, and explore how you can implement them in your workplace.
What is workplace discrimination?
Discrimination can occur at any point in the employment process. The UK Equality Act 2010 covers any interaction between a company and potential/current employee, from recruitment and training to employment terms, promotion opportunities, and dismissal. That means that legal action can be bought against a company even if the person making the claim isn’t a current employee.
One of the reasons that companies fail to identify race discrimination is that the definition covers more than just direct incidents. While most management teams recognise brazen examples of racism, a majority of workplace prejudice is more insidious.
Indirect discrimination and micro-aggressions
Indirect discrimination and micro-aggressions are two of the most common and least recognised forms of racism in the workplace. They are harder to pick up on, and often not noticed unless reported by an employee who has been negatively impacted. Often, this type of discrimination is the result of unconscious bias or a lack of understanding.
Indirect discrimination occurs when an individual is treated the same as another but suffers a greater disadvantage as a consequence of their race, nationality, citizenship, or ethnic origin. It may stem from a practice, policy, or rule that is applied equally to everyone but adversely impacts particular individuals due to specific characteristics.
In a similar vein, micro-aggressions are a subtle form of racial prejudice that can cause serious harm in the workplace. Psychologist Ella Washington defines them as “verbal, behavioural, and environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group.”
For example: “We are all one race: the human race.” Ella Washington says this signals that a Black person’s experience is no different from the experience of people of other races.
Or: “I see your hair is big today! Are you planning to wear it like that to the client meeting?” Which signals that natural Black hairstyles are not professional.
She adds: “Research suggests that subtle forms of interpersonal discrimination like micro-aggressions are at least as harmful as more overt expressions of discrimination. Micro-aggressions reinforce white privilege and undermine a culture of inclusion. The best solution is, of course, increasing awareness of micro-aggressions, insisting that non-Black employees stop committing them, and calling out those who do.”
With this in mind, let’s explore some of the most effective strategies for putting an end to workplace discrimination.
Learn how to talk about race
Opening the conversation is the first step in tackling race prejudice in the workplace. Often, there is a reluctance to broach the topic head-on, which can lead to misunderstanding, division, and ultimately, a reluctance to report incidents if they occur.
Make it your business to understand current issues. Encourage your team to engage in open conversations about race, and lead with specific and accurate information. It can be useful to do this in small groups. Don’t make generalisations about peoples’ experiences, and wherever possible, avoid using acronyms. Ensure that people are praised not only for sharing but also for active listening. It is helpful to begin these conversations by laying out the correct terms, according to up to date terminology. This will help people to feel safe during these conversations.
Commit to regular training and education
It’s not enough to place a diversity manifesto on your company website and hope that people read and understand. It is essential to embed training and education into your workplace, with a focus on the most up to date understanding of race. Don’t try and do this yourself. There are associations all over the UK that specialise in this type of training, and they do a fantastic job.
Look into bias interrupters
Bias interrupters are very small, simple changes that tweak business systems to rid them of unconscious bias. They can range from putting limits on referral hires and sending recruiters to job fairs aimed at racial minorities, to using software to scan resumes rather than HR staff.
According to leadership expert Naomi Cahn, there are three key components to this strategy.
She writes: “The first step in disrupting bias is using metrics. Begin by tracking the characteristics of their applicant pool and then monitoring the demography of the pool at each step in the hiring process.
The second step is using various bias interrupters. This might take the form of training on some of the different standards that could be applied; for example, are some applicants being judged on potential, while others only judged on experience?
The final step is reviewing what happened to see if meaningful and positive change actually resulted. If so, then you’ve found a good solution that can be used again.”