Racism in the workplace is often facilitated through processes and systems that create unequal access to power and opportunities based on race or ethnicity. Racism is founded on incorrect ideas and assumptions about some racial and ethnic groups, but it goes beyond just biased thinking. It causes real harm by not allowing everyone to take part in society equally.
Racism in the workplace can consist of verbal discrimination, hurtful actions, or inequity in a job environment. It doesn’t have to be intentional. Sometimes, racism occurs because systems or work cultures haven’t evolved over time to reflect a more diverse population.
How Common Is Racism in the Workplace?
Even though the United States has made big strides in combatting racism since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, racism still exists in many workplaces. A 2021 Gallup poll found that 24% of Black and 24% of Hispanic workers had experienced discrimination in the workplace in the previous twelve months. According to The Harris Poll, three out of five workers have seen or experienced racial discrimination.
What Does Racism in the Workplace Look Like?
Racism takes many forms. These can range from overt attacks and derogatory speech to more subtle, systemic issues. Here are some of the types of racism you may see or experience in the workplace.
This form of direct harassment is what many people think racism is. It can include name-calling, derogatory comments, racist jokes, and insults. The harassment can be spoken but can also include offensive objects, images, and written or digital notes.
Microagressions are subtle forms of racism. For example, someone may express surprise at a non-white worker’s education level. Another example may involve an Asian worker not being invited to a meeting about a project they were working on when all white colleagues were invited. The term “microaggression” can disguise the fact that these actions can have macro effects. These put-downs, slights, and harmful actions are real racism and should be taken seriously.
Sometimes known as institutional racism or structural racism, this form of discrimination happens at the level of organizations and practices. For example, an organization may rely only on networking for hiring. If the executives and recruiters of a company tend to network at events where the majority of participants are white, they will hire white candidates. They will not consider Black, Latinx, or other candidates because they will not see them. The structure and practices of their hiring will promote inequality by not giving qualified talent a chance.
This form of racism can happen when the same rule is applied to everyone, leading to some workers being at a disadvantage. For example, a workplace may ask all workers to work on Saturdays, not making an accommodation for Jewish workers who may not be able to work on the Sabbath.
This form of discrimination involves treating someone differently because of their race. A person may judge a Jewish work colleague, for example, or refer to ethnic stereotypes in conversations.
Discrimination by association
Sometimes, racism is directed at someone because of who they associate with. For example, if a white worker is passed over for a promotion because their partner is Black, this is racism (and discrimination) by association.
This form of racism extends to the environment where a person works. For example, a company may have a diverse team, but buildings, building wings, departments, conference rooms, and other parts of the building may be named only after white male company owners or founders. Environmental microaggressions can also occur in situations where white customers ask to speak to a white manager or leader when meeting with a non-white leader or manager.
Why Is It Important for Employers to Address Racism in the Workplace?
There are many reasons why you might want to think about racism in the workplace and take steps to make everyone feel welcome.
- It’s the right thing to do. The simplest answer is that eliminating discrimination is the ethical thing to do. Racism can make people feel worse and like they can’t speak up or be themselves at work. You don’t want any of your hard-working employees to feel like that—ever. Equally, you want to send a message beyond your organization to customers and the wider public. By taking a stance against discrimination, you make it clear that racism is not tolerated at your company.
- It can help you hire and retain talent. Candidates and employees are standing up to bias and discrimination. 60% of workers polled by Edelman reported they would avoid taking a job or quit a job if they saw racism.
- It can help prevent a toxic workplace. Racism in the workplace creates injustice. When you address it, you encourage people to thrive and help create an overall feeling of safety.
- It can prevent legal action. Racial discrimination at work is illegal in the United States under Title VII of The Civil Rights Act (which also prohibits discrimination based on age, national origin, sex, color, and religion). These federal rules are enforced by The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Workers who feel that they have been discriminated against also have the option of filing a civil lawsuit and seeking damages.
- It benefits everyone at the organization. Sometimes, business leaders focus primarily on the benefits for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) employees, and while such benefits exist, addressing racism allows everyone to enjoy a better workplace. When racism is called out and addressed, it shows everyone they are welcome and that they’re in a workplace that takes all worker concerns seriously.
How Can Your Organization Prevent Racism in the Workplace?
Racism in the workplace has shifted over time. Today it can be hidden. For example, a workplace may have a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policy and be honestly trying to hire a more diverse workforce. However, a close examination may show that Black workers earn less and are given promotions less often than their white counterparts. For example, Black women earn $0.64 for every dollar earned by white men.
The first step to preventing or addressing racism in your workplace is to acknowledge that it can be present, even if you haven’t noticed it yet. Here’s what to do next.
Train your employees
Everyone has bias. Studies have shown that our brains work by identifying potential threats and we have been hard-wired to view anyone who is different at us as a possible risk. This is exacerbated by media images and comments we all hear that can reinforce stereotypes.
Racial bias training can help everyone at your organization overcome unconscious bias and can help them learn best practices for making all team members feel welcome. You can use the Connecteam training app to create training for your teams and use the chat app to have ongoing conversations about what you have learned.
You can work with a third-party organization to gather anonymous data about your team. DEI specialists can stay compliant while they analyze data about how members of your team identify. This can be useful because it can help you determine whether you have less racial diversity in leadership than you thought, for example. It can also help you evaluate how racially diverse your team really is. It may not be immediately apparent how your team members identify.
Put a reporting policy in place
Where can a team member go and what can they do if they see or experience racism in the workplace? Create a reporting system that makes employees feel comfortable about coming forward. You may want to create a no-tolerance policy or develop a system to make sure you follow up and seriously address any allegations. Having a complaint policy helps you address allegations of wrongdoing fairly. Once you have a draft of your policy written, have it reviewed by an attorney to make sure it’s compliant with all relevant laws.
Then, share your policy with your team. You can upload your policy to the Connecteam Knowledge Base, so everyone can access the information instantly. Once your policy is in place, you may want to take the following steps if someone comes forward with a complaint.
- If possible, meet with the team member who has experienced racism. Allow them to express what has happened and reassure them that you will act. Explain what will happen next in the process and what kinds of outcomes are possible.
- Investigate the complaint by reviewing any images or texts which may be racist, or by speaking with employees who may have seen what happened. Keep this documentation.
- Make recommendations about what should happen next. If someone acted in a discriminatory way, decide what will happen. Will they be required to attend racial bias training? Will the incident be treated as misconduct and potentially lead to termination? If the racism is systemic or a form of microaggression, how can you change the workplace to create a better environment? You may wish to speak to legal counsel if you will be taking action against an employee who behaved inappropriately, and you should ensure that this action is based on strong evidence.
- Follow up after the changes have been made to make sure the problem has been addressed. Continue to work with anyone who was adversely affected to ensure that they have gotten the support they need. If someone has been affected by racism in your workplace, you may be able to support them by keeping them informed about what changes you are making to ensure the situation doesn’t happen again. Holding meetings to address racism in the workplace and creating a strong DEI strategy can also show your commitment to making change, which can make your affected employee(s) feel safer.
When hiring someone, share your efforts to eliminate inequality in the workplace. Emphasize that you are building a safe and equitable space. Look for candidates who are enthusiastic about contributing to this effort.
Create a safe workplace
While there is no way to guarantee racism will never happen at your organization, you can reduce the risk by creating an inclusive and safe workplace. Here’s how:
- Create and work on developing a strong DEI strategy.
- Make inclusion and equity part of your company mission and company values.
- Consult with an attorney to make sure your company policies and processes are compliant with federal and local laws.
- Conduct anonymous surveys of your team to find out what changes they would like to see to foster equity and a culture of safety.
- Create safe chats where workers can discuss ways to address racism in the workplace.
Racism Has No Place in the Workplace
Racism in the workplace continues to be unfortunately common. Acknowledging the possibility of discrimination and working to stop it at your organization can help you attract and retain talent, and can help you create a better place to work for everyone on your team.