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These are 12 effective ways to deal with racism at work. Unfortunately, racist incidents still occur in the workplace and it can take place in many ways but employers can deal with this problem using these 12 effective ways to deal with racism in a way that can eventually force employees to understand that it is not acceptable.

How to Deal With Racism at Work

By Catherine Adenle

Explore these 12 effective ways to deal with racism at work. At a time when it’s evident that change is necessary to address the racism that currently prevails, it’s only fitting to share some tips on how to address and deal with racism in organizations.

Racism at work can come in the form of a badly-judged joke or even a dismissive attitude but whatever it might be, dealing with racism effectively at work is crucial. So, if there are reports of racism in the workplace, how should you react as a business?

What is racism? It is prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their colour or for belonging to a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized. The warped theory of racism is the belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another.
Unfortunately, racist incidents still occur in the workplace and it can take place in many ways but employers can deal with this problem in a way that can eventually force employees to understand that it is not acceptable.

At work, if an employee is treated unfairly because of their race, or because of the race of someone they are connected to, such as their partner, this is race discrimination. ‘Race’ includes colour, nationality, citizenship and ethnic or national origins. The use of racist language at work is also racial discrimination.

Race discrimination does not need to be deliberate. Someone may be discriminating against an employee without realising it or meaning to, but this will still count as discrimination.

Discrimination at work is two folds: direct and indirect discrimination.

Direct Race Discrimination
One example of direct discrimination is getting racist abuse and harassment from someone at work. Another is if a manager or anyone says something like, ‘‘Sorry, you didn’t get the job because we think you wouldn’t fit in.’ If your colleague who got the same is of another race, then, that’s direct racism. Another direct racism example is if someone says, ‘Visiting customers may not want to do business with us if they see that you don’t look like them.’

Indirect Race Discrimination

An example of indirect discrimination is an organization insisting that candidates for a job should have qualifications from a particular country or insisting that no employee should wear a headscarf, or turban at work. Another is where an employer refuses to appoint someone because they are from a particular racial group. It is indirect race discrimination to have a rule, policy or practice which people of a particular racial, ethnic or national group are less likely to be able to meet than other people, and this places them at a disadvantage.

In your organization, if there’s a complaint about race discrimination in whichever form, it must be addressed. The offended party shouldn’t be victimised or treated unfairly because they complained.

“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.” – Maya Angelou

We cannot talk about racism without addressing microaggressions. They are described as “commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults”. Their subtle nature should not be mistaken as being in any way less serious or unacceptable because microaggressions play a huge part in sustaining systemic racism. This is an example of microaggression, to a non-white colleague in a mostly white office: “So, where are you from? …No, I mean, where are you really from?” A slow accumulation of this type of microaggressions can lead to low self-esteem, feelings of alienation and eventually even mental health issues, researchers warn. They can also create a toxic work environment.

See What is a microaggression? 14 things people think are fine to say at work — but are actually racist, sexist, or offensive

These are the 12 effective ways to deal with racism at work

Must do as an organization:

1. Train all employees about conscious and unconscious biases.

2. Create an environment where Psychological Safety for learning, growth and innovation is present.

3. Have a policy in place against discrimination or racism of any kind and ensure it contains consequences.

4. Encourage staff to speak up when they are victims of racism or when they notice racist behaviour and ensure they feel supported through processes.

5. Make Diversity and Inclusion a key part of your organisation’s strategy and let it be reflected in your workforce.

Steps to follow to address racist incidences:

6. Follow policy and carry out an investigation.

7. Treat the complainant fairly – an immediate apology to the offended party can go a long way.

8. Speak with all witnesses.

9. Treat the accused fairly too as you try to get to the bottom of the matter.

10. Decide and communicate the outcome to both parties.

11. Take necessary actions following the consequences guidelines in your policy.

12. Review your process and make improvements if necessary.

Must do as an organization:

1. Train all employees about conscious and unconscious biases.

Unconscious bias happens automatically and it is outside of our control because it is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of other people and situations, influenced by our own background, personal experiences and cultural environment. We are unaware of our unconscious biases but they are stored away in our minds and still affect the way we think and how we behave. Unconscious bias as it relates to diversity and inclusion is reflected in our prejudices and stereotypes that are deeply seated within us as a result of our socialisation.

Cases of Unconscious Bias happen every day in and outside the workplace. However, at work, they can have a seriously negative impact on staff morale and productivity.

For this reason, organizations need to train their employees to identify, challenge, and reduce unconscious biases in the workplace. Workplaces with fewer biases tend to cultivate fairer, more diverse, and more successful cultures. Employees understanding unconscious biases and the negative impact they can have on organisations will go along way to stem racism.

Organizations need to train employees on unconscious biases. If left unchecked, unconscious biases can turn to discrimination. Unfortunately, we all have unconscious biases and by providing awareness training, employees are encouraged to learn more about it.

It also teaches them how to recognize biases and how to combat them in daily decision-making.

Unconscious biases take into account our identity as well as our different ways of thinking and different ways of behaving in different contexts.

Although, training employees about conscious and unconscious biases is necessary, however, rolling out a training programme for unconscious biases is not going to be sustainable if these three things are not considered:

  • leadership
  • culture
  • engagement

Why? The reason is that unconscious bias training may not necessarily address the root causes of biases. Organisations need to implement real practical actions first by embracing a holistic approach to deal with biases. Then, implement the training.

Leaders should consciously integrate diversity strategy into the organisational strategy. They need to actively steer and position the diversity anchor in the right direction by investing and providing adequate resources to directly deal with, and root out racism. They can also address unconscious bias by identifying and making explicit and role modelling the behaviours that they expect employees in their organization to demonstrate and practice.

The organisational culture needs to demonstrate how diversity is an advantage to its long-term health in relation to attracting talent and realizing growth. For instance, many organisations persist in employing people who are a ‘good fit’ with the culture. What’s a good fit? This is like saying ‘we only like people who look like us and are like us’. Adopting a systemic approach to enable people who are different to be included in your organisation’s culture will enable organisational structures, systems and processes to adapt to difference whilst facilitating the training on unconscious biases.

Nothing works unless there’s buy-in from those that need to embrace it. Connect, engage and collaborate with employees so that difficult and crucial conversations can be had openly to generate honest views. Encourage employees to be involved in high profile diversity and inclusion projects so that the success of the organisation is determined by all rather than a selected few.

Once these three things are addressed, then, training will go a long way to reduce unconscious biases in the workplace

2. Create an environment where Psychological Safety for learning, growth and innovation is present.

This second way of the 12 effective ways to deal with racism at work is important. Creating an environment where psychological safety for learning and growth is in place will help employees to thrive in a group free of judgement where there’s an open conversation of difficult and sensitive topics. Risk and failure are permissible in such an environment to enhance innovation. There will also be the willingness to help each other as well as an environment where there are inclusivity and diversity enabling people to be themselves and are welcomed for this.

Low psychological safety, gets in the way of an organizations’ performance, how it innovates, learn, and personal success of employees. For an organization to be successful, psychological safety is the enabler. Psychological safety is defined as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes”.

There was a research that was undertaken by Harvard (as detailed in Amy Edmondson’s book The Fearless Organization), which clearly shows that organisations with a higher level of psychological safety perform better on almost any metric, or KPI, in comparison to organizations that have a low psychological safety score.

3. Have a policy in place against discrimination, racism and ensure it contains consequences.

It goes without saying that every organization must have at least one policy in place to address discrimination and racism. They must ensure that the policy contains consequences too. Employees should also be made aware of the policy, where it’s hosted on the intranet and the reasons behind it via clear communication and through various internal channels. A special roll-out broadcast of the policy will help all employees to know of it. This way, there’s no excuse for not knowing that such a policy is available. The company policy should contain employees’ rights and responsibilities, outlining what discrimination is, why it will not be tolerated and the consequences of being racist to another employee. Ensure you provide other important and relevant information to support the policy.

See 12 Most Effective Communication Channels for Change

Dealing with discrimination and racism can be expensive for an organization and can cause lost productivity, low morale, job dissatisfaction and, ultimately, can threaten a company’s profitability. That’s why it’s crucial to implement policies that prohibit racism or discrimination and any unlawful harassment. Company policy should dovetail applicable government laws.

When the behaviours highlighted in the policy are breached, consequences must be administered so that those responsible are dealt with appropriately.

One of the most impactful things employees and employers can do to promote anti-racism in their workplace is to come together to design the policy that contains consequences. Not only should it include others reporting or calling out racism no matter how subtle it is, but it should also contain employees proactively seeking out and learning about racism. Everyone joining in and doing their research, amplifying anti-racist voices, being an anti-racist voice and upholding zero-tolerance policies towards racism and discrimination at work are practical ways an organization can fight for change.

4. Encourage staff to speak up when they are victims of racism or when they notice racist behaviour and ensure they feel supported through processes.

This is another great way of the 12 effective ways to deal with racism at work. Many people find it difficult calling out racism when they witness it happening at work or elsewhere. Getting employees to understand how best to navigate issues of discrimination, biases and racism as well as how to intervene safely will transform bystanders into allies and advocates.

Provide employees guidance on how to speak up and take action when they witness discrimination and racism at work. Letting employees know that being a bystander and not saying anything is not acceptable. Make this part of the policy that you put in place. Employees knowing how to intervene if they ever witness discrimination taking place at work will surely stem racism in the workplace.

5. Make Diversity and Inclusion a key part of your organisation’s strategy and let it be reflected in your workforce.

Your employees should see diversity at work in your organization. It’s vital that your organization not only address existing or underlying racism but also make Diversity and Inclusion a key part of your organisation’s strategy and let it be reflected in your workforce. Actively promote anti-racism throughout the organisation and persist in the fight against racial inequality at work and wider society. Racism and discrimination are major issues affecting workplaces around the globe. Showing diversity and talking about it is key.

Racism at Work Quote by Catherine Adenle

As an organization, go beyond your organization and support social injustice organisations and non-profits. This point is relevant for company leaders and people in positions of responsibility. By actively supporting social injustice organisations and non-profits tackling racism in society will not only open up the conversation about vocalising stories about race and experiences based on racism to employees, but it also shows them that your organization’s actions match your words when it comes to supporting anti-racism.

Encourage your managers and colleagues to openly discuss their unique experiences and respectfully show genuine curiosity. Here are some new tools and resources to help your organization embark on the journey. Organizations can do far more than they are doing to accelerate gender and racial equity in the workplace in the wake of the pandemic and protests. That was the message of Catalyst’s recent survey of US business leaders and employees. The survey of 1,100 people found that while 7 in 10 employees believe workplaces will accelerate gender equity, only 41% think their company is fully committed and already taking steps to create a more inclusive workplace.

“With the disruption of Covid-19, we see a clear tension between optimism for a more inclusive and equitable workplace and scepticism that companies and business leaders will take the necessary steps to address disparities at the organizational level,” –  Lorraine Hariton, Catalyst President & CEO

See How and Why to Create An Empowering Workplace

An effective way to deal with racism at work is to build a workplace that is diverse and inclusive. However, experts have cautioned that D&I work is not for the faint of heart and that change will not happen overnight. But, companies must achieve it.

See 6 Tactics for Effectively Building Diversity and Inclusion

Video: Racism in the workplace

Racism in the workplace


Steps to follow:

6. Follow policy and carry out an investigation.

Companies must take every complaint seriously, and devote time and resources to ensuring that their employees feel safe and respected at work. there’s no excuse for failing to investigate and remedy race-based harassments. Proactive and immediate investigation plus mediation as stated in the policy could prevent racism issues from becoming inflammatory at work.

As an employer, you have the responsibility to investigate and respond to any issue you become aware of and you should take all reasonable measures to protect employees from any type of harassment including racism.

See Investigations for Discipline and Grievance: Step by Step

As best practices, your organization should promptly document complaints of racial discrimination, meet and interview the parties, and monitor the aftermath of the complaint or investigation. You should also ensure that the complaining employee feels safe and comfortable with going back to work with the harasser. If the employee does not, then the employer must explore other options as stated in the policy. Pay close attention to the nature, severity, and frequency of the complaints.

See Confronting Racism at Work: A Reading List

Infographic: 12 Effective Ways An Organization Can Deal With Racism at Work by Catherine Adenle

12 Effective Ways to Deal With Racism at Work


7. Treat the complainant fairly – an immediate apology to the offended party can go a long way.

Another major way of the 12 ways to deal with racism at work is by treating complaints fairly and quickly. In organizations, offering an immediate apology to the offended party can go a long way. This is very much dependent on the nature of the complaint but some employees might be satisfied with an explanation or an apology from the accused as well as the employer. Of course, this is not going to solve the problem of racism in the workplace but it can help to highlight the severity of it and the impact it has. It also provides employers with an understanding of how severe the offence is and how it might respond to it.

Conversations are engines for change. Conversations will more likely have a positive, productive outcome than a heated conflict of any sort. Challenging why someone has said or done something to another in a conversational setting is more likely to make them receptive to considering their views and prejudices.

8. Speak with all witnesses.

Witnesses are important parties when investigating racism or discrimination at work. if there are no policies in place to address and deal with racism, it’s common for many employees to have very little understanding of how a business handles racism until the time arises. Dealing with racism is a serious matter and with that comes a need to create a list of employees who can provide further information about the accusation. This will involve asking questions and keeping a record of any witness statements and outcomes. This will ensure all records and accounts can be used during intervention or in a court of law if necessary.

9. Treat the accused fairly too as you try to get to the bottom of the matter.

It’s part of the process of dealing with racism in the workplace to ensure that the accused is treated fairly. This means that they are innocent until proven guilty. Therefore, managers should not pass judgement but employers have to remember that they have a duty to investigate all racism claims all of which should be done with neutrality and an open mind. It’s also imperative that the accused are allowed to defend themselves by making a statement.

10. Decide and communicate the outcome to both parties.

Racism is a serious matter in the workplace but any investigation is going to have an outcome and this needs to be relayed to both parties. The outcome will need to be explained and confirmed in writing while the manager should highlight that retaliation is prohibited. According to the policy in place, if proven that the accused is guilty, then, the right consequence should be applied.

Following the process and policies that the organization has put in place to highlight ways in which racism can be dealt with in the workplace is crucial. It sends the message that the organization is serious about not tolerating racism at work. It is imperative that businesses promote equality in the workplace and educate at the same time. In failing to do so, it could mean that businesses can end up facing penalties.

11. Take necessary actions following the consequences’ guidelines in your policy.

To truly follow the 12 effective ways to deal with racism at work, as an organization, you need to take the necessary steps to address reported incidences. Addressing racism or investigating discrimination issues may be lengthy, difficult, and emotional for both employees and employers. The employees involved must be prepared to hear and accept companies’ decisions according to how they are laid out in their policy. Employees must also be reasonable in how they choose to accept the result of the intervention.
Education and training to all, on policies and expected behaviours are key in preventing racial discrimination in the workplace. Knowing what racial discrimination is, how it may be identified and understanding its severity means your organization can take necessary actions.

12. Review your process and make improvements if necessary.

The last of the 12 effective ways to deal with racism is by constantly improving your process to ensure that every gaping hole is plugged to prevent racism. The only way to truly prevent racism at work is for your organization to be pragmatic about how you deal with it.

Racism poisons the work environment. Sometimes it may appear invisible, and other times, like now in the world it’s in full view to the point that its stench proves too much for anyone to bear. George Floyd’s death under the knee of the police officer who dug his knee into his neck in Minneapolis, and all of us being amid a global pandemic that is slowly and disproportionately suffocating thousands of Black lives have propelled people around the world to rise against racist systems that have nurtured these very results.

See 20 Things Employees Value (Infographic)

We must take action to eliminate it so we, all of us, everyone, can work and thrive in a great work environment.

We know that candid discussions about racism at work or anywhere are difficult but they are essential. It sounds obvious, but you can’t value differences if you are not aware of them or don’t understand how they affect a person’s experiences. Most people want their colleagues and managers to recognize and understand at least some of their differences.

Now that you have explored these 12effective ways to deal with racism at work, what can you add? let us hear from you.

Catherine Adenle
Founder, Catherine's Career Corner. The career site empowering and inspiring ambitious candidates of all ages and professions to thrive and work smarter on their careers. Gladly helping all career-minded people worldwide to explore their career, manage change and understand how new technologies are changing and enhancing the future of work.
Catherine Adenle
Catherine Adenle

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