How to respond to racism in the workplace

Understand the paradigm shift required to develop effective anti-racism strategies

How to respond to racism in the workplace
Keith Jeffers

The Black Lives Matter movement, and how it has been received by politicians, as well as several recent high-profile cases concerning deep rooted racial bias, have put anti-racism and diversity training at the forefront of employers’ minds.

Responding to racism in the workplace and developing a strategy to combat it is a complex task that forces employers and HR teams to consider multiple different issues. This includes current workplace culture and organizational policies and practices, and systems that may inadvertently support racial bias.

Development of anti-racism strategies begins with a paradigm shift. Decision-makers likely have to unlearn some of the beliefs they may hold about race, anti-Black racism and anti-racism change.

Organizations need to unlearn the definition of racism as discrete individual acts of bigotry. Leaders need to understand the systemic nature of racism. Systemic racism is not attributed directly to the actions of specific individuals. Rather, it arises from policies, procedures, practices and conduct which may not be discriminatory in their intent but which adversely impact Black and racialized individuals or groups.

The result is that Black and racialized individuals and groups are less likely to be hired and promoted for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability. These groups are also more likely to be excluded from decision-making roles and to experience harassment in the workplace.

Organizations also need to unlearn the Blame Game. The underrepresentation and exclusion of Black employees are not necessarily the result of their own inadequacies. Instead, organizational leaders should determine the extent to which the organization’s employment policies, practices and culture inadvertently result in the exclusion of these employees.

This can be a difficult starting point as it requires the organization’s leadership to look at their own policies critically and objectively using an anti-racism lens. To understand how to objectively review your policies, organizations need to understand and apply Awareness, Knowledge, and Skills.

The ideas of Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility – Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, and Ibram X Kendi, author of How to be An Antiracist inform our approaches to anti-racism change. 

You can view their insights in full with Employment Matters curated content but, simply put, these three key areas of focus are a starting point for any anti-racism plan:

Awareness: An effective change process begins only when we become aware of what needs to be changed to achieve the desired outcomes.

Knowledge: With a heightened awareness, we then move to identify and acquire the knowledge needed to make informed decisions about the change that is necessary.

Skills: We identify and acquire the skills and competencies, organizational commitment, change strategies, interventions, and accountability mechanisms to design, implement, measure, monitor and sustain anti-racism change.

A methodology to responding to racism at work: The representation, occupational distribution and workplace experiences of Black and racialized employees in your organization are the result of your employment decisions and the impact of employment policies, practices and your organizational culture over time.

Human rights legislation makes systemic racism illegal. An important first step is the adverse impact analysis of your organization’s employment systems, policies and practices to identify barriers to inclusion faced by Black and racialized employees.

Using data analysis to combat underrepresentation: Review the workforce data to identify patterns, prevalence and the severity of the underrepresentation and exclusion of Black and racialized employees.

In the absence of a survey data, it is still possible to identify the occupational distribution of Black employees. To do this, have your leadership meet to answer and discuss these questions:

  • where they are in the organization and where they are not. Are they in key roles?
  • is there occupational segregation?
  • what is the composition of the feeder groups to key positions? 

Where available, we may compare their salary data to that of other employees. In some organizations, we are able to do a flow data analysis of hires, promotions, and exits of Black employees compared to others.

Precarious employment: In the absence of survey data, we rely on anecdotal data to assess the Black and racialized composition of the organization’s casual, contract and seasonal employees.

Prejudicial attitudes: As measured by an analysis of human rights complaints and grievances.

Performing a qualitative analysis of exclusion and underrepresentation: To perform a quantitative analysis, our team at Employment Matters identifies patterns of exclusion and underrepresentation.

In the qualitative analysis, we review your HR policies that regulate and inform actions and decisions in each employment system, from recruitment, training and development and promotion through to retention, termination and accommodation. These policies are reviewed using well established Barriers Evaluation Criteria of Legality, Consistency, Adverse Impact, Validity, Job Relatedness and Reasonable Accommodation. 

We seek to determine whether and/or the degree to which these policies and the accompanying formal and informal practices have a disproportionately negative effect on Black and racialized employees. 

Employee consultations: Use of diagnostic one-on-one or focus group interviews with randomly selected employees, hiring managers and HR professionals.

Reversing systemic racism: The above analyses identify barriers to inclusion. The employer can use these analyses to establish quantitative and qualitative goals and evidence-based strategies and initiatives to remove barriers to inclusion over time, usually a 3-year time frame.

Within that time frame, the employer and other leaders in the organization can work to establish accountability mechanisms and develop internal capacity.

The impact of community engagement: Organizations may choose to strengthen their Corporate Social Responsibility role while strengthening their corporate brand. Community engagement activities and programs are a viable option. We recommend that they establish programs to meet the needs of underserved communities or the communities in which they operate. They may engage the communities independently or partner with community leaders to do so.

A call to action against racial bias at work: Tackling racial bias in the workplace is a complex process that requires leaders and the entire workforce to look at their organizations objectively, while encouraging marginalized groups to speak out. If you are looking for help to approach this issue from a compliance and training perspective, you can contact Keith Jeffers at [email protected].

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