What is racism in the workplace and how does it show up?

two men laughing at their teammate is part of racism in the workplace

Let’s talk about racism in the workplace.

93% of white workers do not believe racial or ethnic discrimination exists in their workplace.

Do you feel uncomfortable already? That’s okay. Feelings of discomfort, denial, and anger are normal reactions to something so reprehensible. But the fact that you clicked on this article says something: You want to learn. That’s a great first step.

Before we go over some tips for fighting racism in the workplace, let’s begin with some statistics and definitions so you can get a better idea of what it is and why it’s still wreaking havoc in our professional lives.

Table of contents
7 workplace racism statistics
What is racism?
7 simple steps toward racial equity in the workplace
How will you take steps to prevent racism in the workplace?

7 workplace racism statistics

  • 42% of employees in the U.S. have experienced or witnessed racism in the workplace. For Glassdoor's 2019 Diversity and Inclusion Study, The Harris Poll surveyed over 5,000 employees in the U.S., UK, France and Germany. Of the 1,113 U.S. workers surveyed, 42% agreed with the statement, "I have experienced or witnessed racism in the workplace”—the highest percentage of any of the countries included.
  • 35% of Black workers believe racial or ethnic discrimination exists in their workplace, but only 7% of white workers believe the same. This is based on data from June 2020, when SHRM surveyed 1,257 U.S. workers for its Together Forward @Work report on racial inequity.
  • In a 2020 experiment, Black women with natural hairstyles were rated as less professional than Black women with straightened hairstyles. They were also less likely to be recommended for an interview. The results of this study were published in the August 2020 edition of Social Psychological and Personality Science.
  • “Whitened” resumes are more likely to get call-backs than resumes with ethnic-sounding names. This 2016 study was published in Administrative Science Quarterly and explored the many ways people of color might feel compelled to participate in "resume whitening," which includes tactics such as modifying their names, changing the way they presented their experience (such as deleting experiences that might clue others into their minority status) and adding more "Americanized" interests.

    In one of the experiments, researchers sent fictitious but realistic-sounding resumes to 1,600 real job postings; some of the resumes were whitened, and some had obvious signals of race. The results? Whitened resumes received more callbacks. For Black job applicants, 25% received callbacks for whitened resumes versus 10% for resumes with race details. For Asian job applicants, 21% received callbacks for whitened resumes versus 11.5% for resumes with race details.
  • On average, Black and Hispanic workers are paid less than white workers at almost every level of education. According to the Economic Policy Institute's State of Working America Wages 2019, Black workers with advanced degrees earned 82.4% of the wages that white workers with advanced degrees earned in 2019.
  • Black professionals (31%) have less access to senior leaders at work than white professionals do (44%). This is based on data from Coqual’s 2019 Being Black in Corporate America report. The report highlighted disparities between perceptions as well. For example, while 65% of Black professionals say that Black employees must work harder than their colleagues to get ahead in their careers, only 16% of white professionals believe the same.
  • In 2016, over 70% of Asian and Black workers in Britain said that they had experienced racial harassment at work in the previous five years. This is based on the answers of 5,191 people in Britain who participated in the 2016-2017 Racism at Work survey.

What is racism?

While overt racism is easy to spot—such as shouting slurs or making racially-charged jokes—racism is more than that. Therefore, starting a discussion about racism in the workplace is futile without first establishing a definition. Believe it or not, there are many different definitions of what exactly constitutes racism, and what you find in dictionaries may not sufficiently cover subtle racism.

For example, if you had looked up the word “racism” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2019, you would’ve found this definition: “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

But in 2020, Merriam-Webster modified that entry thanks to an email from Kennedy Mitchum, who suggested that it mention systemic oppression. The dictionary now includes an additional definition: “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another.”

Legally speaking, it’s useful to refer to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in charge of enforcing Title VII, has this to say about race discrimination:

“Race discrimination involves treating someone (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because he/she is of a certain race or because of personal characteristics associated with race (such as hair texture, skin color, or certain facial features).”

The EEOC further points out that an employer’s policies and practices can be discriminatory against certain races.

“An employment policy or practice that applies to everyone, regardless of race or color, can be illegal if it has a negative impact on the employment of people of a particular race or color and is not job-related and necessary to the operation of the business.”

Most notably, impact matters when determining if a policy or practice is discriminatory—it’s not always about intent. As lawyer Lisa Guerin writes for Nolo.com:

“Disparate impact is a way to prove employment discrimination based on the effect of an employment policy or practice rather than the intent behind it. Laws that prohibit employment discrimination apply not only to intentional discrimination, but also to apparently neutral policies and practices that have a disproportionate adverse affect on members of a protected class.”

7 simple steps toward racial equity in the workplace

Given the startling statistics and the many ways racism in the workplace can show up, what can you do about it in your organization?

1. Be open.

When talking about racism, it’s common to feel defensive. You may be reading this article thinking, “Oh, well, this doesn’t happen in my workplace!” But take a second to consider that you may not have all the information. Just because it’s never happened to you doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened to your colleagues.

As we saw earlier, 93% of white workers in the U.S. do not believe racial or ethnic discrimination exists in their workplace, despite 35% of Black workers saying that it does. On top of that, the majority of the American labor force is white (78%), according to 2018 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This increases the chances that a very real problem might be dismissed or ignored by senior executives who hold the most power and are the most visible.

2. Make your workplace psychologically safe.

Unless your employees feel psychologically safe, they won’t feel comfortable speaking up when they witness or experience racism. So before you do anything else, ensure that you create an environment of psychological safety by asking questions, listening openly (even if the other person’s opinions differ from your own), and showing appreciation for your employees' insights. Make it okay to talk about “taboo” topics in an effort to improve your workplace.

3. Uncover your unconscious biases.

We all have unconscious biases. It’s only human. What matters is that we work to become aware of them so we can take action against them.

For example, after receiving requests for more diversity and inclusion training, Chicago-based payment platform Braintree assembled a diverse team to create a D&I training for employees, complete with tools on how to fight bias.

And in 2018, Starbucks closed more than 8,000 stores so staff could undergo racial bias training following a viral video of two Black men being arrested while waiting for a friend in one of its stores.

If you’re struggling with where to start in your organization, check out this seven-step process to fight unconscious bias. Or, start with a simple D&I survey.

4. Encourage discussion about racism.

Make it okay to talk about racial inequality and the steps you’re taking to fix it in your company. If your team feels like it’s a taboo subject, they’re unlikely to bring it up, and therefore, unlikely to make any real steps toward progress.

Invite people of color to share their experiences and insights if they want to, but don’t expect them to come up with solutions. Being racially discriminated against is exhausting enough—don’t put extra burden upon them to be the ones to tell you how to fix it.

5. Review your workplace policies

Remember, racial discrimination can be subtle and unintentional. You’ll have to dig deep to root out any racism in your workplace. Comb through your corporate policies, your hiring process, and even the way you do performance reviews for any language or action that might oppress certain races.

Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions, such as:

  • Does your company hire Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and other people of color, and are they represented in executive roles? If not, why? Do you actively recruit among these populations?
  • Is there a safe, even anonymous, way for your employees to report racial discrimination?
  • Has your organization implemented Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) for traditionally underrepresented populations?
  • Is every employee being paid a fair salary, regardless of race? Or are white employees of the same level of experience and education being paid more than people of color on your team?

6. Enforce real consequences for racist behaviors.

None of the steps you take to fight racism in the workplace really matter if it’s all talk and no action. If you find a racist policy in your handbooks, change it. If an employee shares that they’re experiencing racism, listen to their story. If someone is exhibiting racist behavior, talk to them and take disciplinary action if necessary.

As we saw earlier, intention doesn’t always matter. Your commitment to ending racism in the workplace is made evident by the impact of your actions.

7. Bring in professionals.

Did you know you can hire diversity and inclusion trainers and anti-racism facilitators? These professionals are equipped to lead discussions and difficult conversations around racial justice and can bring a third-party perspective to your D&I efforts.

How will you take steps to prevent racism in the workplace?

As you have learned, incidents of racism in the workplace do not necessarily look the way you would expect. It isn’t always racial slurs and overt acts of discrimination. It can be extremely subtle and unintentional. That doesn’t make it okay.

Obviously, pursuing racial justice is imperative because it’s the right thing to do. As an added bonus, it’s good for business too. McKinsey & Company found that companies with the most ethnically and culturally diverse executive teams are 33% more likely to attain higher profitability than their peers. According to 2015 research from Bersin by Deloitte, inclusive companies are “1.7 times more likely to be innovation leaders in their market.”

So when companies fail to embrace people of color in the workplace, it is truly a loss for all involved.

When it comes to racism in the workplace, all of us can do better. This article is not enough to cover the intricacies of this topic. Let this be a mere jumping-off point as you investigate how systemic oppression works and how your organization can work to end it.

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