How to Spot and Address Racism in the Workplace
Diversity, inclusion, belonging and equity have been areas of focus for human resources professionals for many years. While diversity (what differentiates each one of us) is easy to understand and incorporate into the workplace, inclusion, on the other hand (getting the mix to work well together) is a more mindful practice.
To ensure inclusion is being worked toward or achieved, a piece of the puzzle that can be harder to uncover and address is racism in the workplace.
You may be thinking to yourself, “Well this is silly — racism is really easy to spot.” But racism can be harder to root out than one may think due to the systemic nature of racism.
Racism can take multiple forms in the workplace from microinequities to microaggressions to stereotyping to blatant outward racism. The more silent forms racism can take are the ones that are harder to recognize, address and stop in the workplace.
Spotting Racism in the Workplace
Microinequities are one of the less obvious forms of racism. Microinequities are subtle but offensive comments or actions that lead to small, exclusionary acts of differential treatment. Some examples of microinequities include eye rolls, fake smiles, phone rudeness, name mispronunciation, looking at one’s watch, introducing someone incorrectly (name, pronouns) and inequities in job assignment. Name mispronunciation, including assigning a nickname to a person without their permission, is both a subtle yet offensive way a person can experience racism in the workplace. When we choose to not learn how to pronounce a person’s name, we are choosing to not honour their heritage and their culture.
Microaggressions are one of the less obvious forms that racism can take on in the workplace. Microaggressions are defined as verbal, nonverbal and environmental insults. Whether intentional or unintentional, they communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target people based solely on their marginalized group membership. You may be asking to yourself, “Have I ever experienced a microaggression in the workplace?” An example of a microaggression in the workplace that you may have encountered or overheard is asking someone “Where do you really come from?” when trying to pinpoint their heritage based on their outward appearance or name. The person asking the question may not even realize that what they are asking or saying is a form of a microaggression.
Stereotyping is a less obvious form that racism can take on in the workplace. Stereotyping is defined as a false or generalized concept of a group of people that results in an unconscious or conscious categorization of each member of that group, without regard for individual differences. Stereotypes are formed through biases and can be harder to change in individuals. Stereotyping in the workplace can commonly occur during the interview process, especially during the resume review process if the hiring manager or team isn’t as well versed in unbiased hiring techniques. It may even sound like “I don’t want to hire someone who is so new to our country because they don’t know English well enough.” A quick way to check a stereotype is to ask the question, “Is the assumption 100 per cent true, 100 per cent of the time?” If the answer is no, then it is probably a stereotype.
Blatant Forms of Racism
We’ve covered the covert forms that racism can take on in the workplace, but what about the blatant or overt forms? This type of racism is defined as and can include any speech or behaviours that demonstrate a conscious acknowledgement of racist attitudes or beliefs and are distinguished by the blatant use of negative attitudes, ideas and actions directed at non-white racial groups. In the workplace, this could be demonstrated through racial jokes, using a racial slur to describe an individual, not interviewing or hiring people based on their skin colour or country of origin, or not assigning job duties to certain people again based on their skin colour or country of origin.
Addressing Racism in the Workplace
Now that we’ve covered the covert and overt forms racism can take on in the workplace, how do we address and stop it from happening or continuing to happen?
Education as a tool is by and large one of the best things a company can use and do to eliminate racism in the workplace. Covert and overt forms of racism are typically formed through our own biases that most likely are ingrained through an individual’s upbringing and culture. If an individual has never been taught otherwise then what they don’t know, they don’t know. Investing time and resources into external diversity and inclusion training is a good place to start and can start the process of self-reflection and self-discovery that can often lead to the realization that an individual’s behaviours or comments are discriminatory and/or racist.
Enabling your team members to address racism (and other discriminatory behaviours and comments) in the workplace can also lead to it stopping. By teaching your team members that they can give notice you are also teaching them how to identify these behaviours and comments and how to have a rational conversation about it, which can then lead to further education and improvement on all sides.
- Directly Giving Notice: This is when someone tells you face-to-face that your behaviour or comment is unwelcome.
- Indirectly Giving Notice: Typically, this is toward a directing mind (such as a supervisor, manager, HR professional or executive). You have the option of telling a directing mind that the behaviour or comment is unwelcome and they must take action to make it stop.
There is no right or wrong option between the two and you should pick whichever makes you feel the safest and most comfortable. Should you choose to take the direct approach consider the following:
- Pause — It is important to understand that you do not have to react right away. Take a step back and try to understand why that comment was said or why that behaviour occurred. Examine any assumptions that you may have before having a conversation with the individual(s) involved.
- Focus — Centre your conversation on the behaviour or the comment and not on the individual. Ask for more information from them or ask clarifying questions. Easy ones to start with are “Why did you say X about X?” or “Why did you perform X behaviour?”.
- Share — Provide another perspective to help the individual educate themselves. While it isn’t your job to go around and educate everyone, ignoring what is going on is a form of enabling.
At Beacon HR, I am able to have an impact not only on Beacon’s stance and elimination of racist behaviours and comments but also with the numerous clients I work alongside on a daily and annual basis. Ensuring that our team at Beacon is diverse and inclusive has really been our mandate from Day 1, and I feel more empowered and energized than ever before to continue on this path. As one thing is for certain, our work will never be done and we will continue to make communities and organizations more inclusive and diverse than ever before.