Half of employees have witnessed racism at work, says survey

Only one in five reported an incident to HR, with fear of the consequences the biggest barrier to speaking up

More than half of UK employees have witnessed racism in the workplace, but the majority have failed to act on or report it, a report published this week has revealed. 

A shocking 52 per cent of more than 1,400 workers surveyed by business psychologists Pearn Kandola said they had witnessed an act of racism at work. A third of them said they had not reported it to their employer. 

Less than a fifth reported the issue to HR and only 18 per cent spoke to the victim, the survey found. Of the respondents who took no action, four in 10 said they did so out of fear of the consequences. A quarter said they did not consider the incident serious enough to report it, and a further 23 per cent claimed that they were unsure of who to report it to. 

The study found that black people, at 69 per cent, were the most likely demographic to have witnessed racism at work, followed by Asian people (53 per cent) and white people (45 per cent).  

Professor Binna Kandola, senior partner at Pearn Kandola, said: “I’m astounded that the rates of witnessed racism in the modern workplace are still so staggeringly high. The question is, what are we doing about it?”

Emma Bartlett, partner at law firm Charles Russell Speechlys, told People Management that employees did not want to put their head above the parapet when it came to tackling such sensitive issues. “This is a concern, as it shows employees perceive the workplace as not [being] an open one that protects employees who are calling out inappropriate behaviour and/or they fear reprisal,” she said.

“It might also indicate a lack of trust in the employer to do the right thing, even if they were to take action. This could mean the employer doesn’t have a good or active diversity policy or one that employees are even aware of.” 

White people were found to be the most likely to respond to an act of racism by confronting the perpetrator, with more than a third claiming this would be their first course of action, according to the survey. Only a quarter of respondents with a black or Asian background, however – at 27 per cent and 25 per cent respectively – said they would follow suit.   

Kandola added: “The fact that ethnic minority people are the least likely to take action against racism, out of fear of the consequences, suggests that organisations provide less psychological safety for minority groups. 

“Therefore, creating safe work environments where minorities feel comfortable challenging racist behaviour will be essential if we are to tackle the problem.”

Lara Murray, employment lawyer at Palmers Solicitors, told People Management part of the problem is that allegations of race discrimination are notoriously difficult to prove. “Racism is often implied rather than overt, meaning that perpetrators may explain away their behaviour, denying that it was racially motivated,” Murray said. 

Sasha Scott, managing director of diversity consultancy Inclusive Group, also said that racism can often be subconscious and tribal. “Difference marks us out – whatever that difference is – because at the heart of life we are primed to be tribal and our affinity biases drive us to spend time with 'people like us’,” she said. “So even though we know it’s inherently wrong to behave in a racist manner, it still happens.”

Given the findings, employers should start putting in place a comprehensive equal opportunities policy, Murray said. “Employees and line managers need comprehensive training on equal opportunities – and there must also be a framework within which employees can raise concerns, such as a grievance procedure or dignity at work policy.”

Bartlett said it was worth setting up a confidential reporting hotline, and ensuring employees were aware there is an anonymous whistleblowing policy in place. 

Fostering an inclusive culture is also essential. “Seek to bring about an open culture where calling out something inappropriate will not result in blame for employees doing the disclosing,” added Bartlett.

If an employer does receive a complaint about possible racism, it must be treated seriously, sensitively and confidentially.

“Often, employers will have separate complaints processes for such sensitive grievances where a trained HR person will be responsible for ensuring any alleged victim receives the care they might need, and ensuring confidentiality,” said Bartlett. “If the allegation is unproven, workers will need to have a viable working relationship going forwards.”

Serious complaints of racism may need to be reported to the police, Bartlett added.

Pearn Kandola conducted the research between 20 November 2017 and 19 January 2018. A separate report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research, published in February, found that the economic cost of workplace discrimination to the UK economy was £12bn. 

The study of 500 workplaces, commissioned by advisory group  INvolve, estimated that discrimination against ethnic minorities cost £2.6bn a year.