Two-thirds of Black employees experienced racism last year, research finds

Data reveals a decline in workers reporting racism to HR as experts suggest leaders “speak out” to improve transparency

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Nearly two-thirds (61 per cent) of Black employees experienced racism in 2021, a report by Pearn Kandola has found.

The Racism at Work in the UK report revealed that three quarters (74 per cent) of employees thought that racism was a problem last year, a rise of two percentage points from 2018.

The report, which surveyed 1,203 UK employees, found that while over half (52 per cent) had witnessed racism at work, only one in five (22 per cent) reported the incident to management or HR. A quarter (28 per cent) said they took no action following the event and of those who didn’t report it , two in five (41 per cent) said this was because they feared the consequences.

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Sandra Kerr CBE, race director at Business in the Community, said it was unacceptable that employees feared repercussions for calling out racism. “Employers can only truly address racism in the workplace if leaders speak out about it,” said Kerr, adding that employers should help employees feel more “empowered and comfortable” to report racism, “otherwise their inaction is contributing to the problem”.

There was just a seven per cent increase in the number of Black employees who reported an incident to HR; this was six per cent for Asian respondents, and five per cent for white respondents. But of those who had taken action on racism, almost half (48 per cent) said it led to positive outcomes. 

However, a third (32 per cent) said the issue was not resolved, one in five (21 per cent) said the complaint was ignored and no action was taken and two per cent said reporting it worsened the situation.

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Sunita Harley, inclusion consultant and executive coach at Collective Insight, said the research flagged that challenging racism at work is a collective responsibility, but put the onus on leaders to model inclusive behaviour in the workplace. 

“Leaders and managers need to be role models when calling out [racism] or managing any non-inclusive behaviours, so this is seen as part of their leadership style,” said Harley, adding that policies and frameworks “outlining clear steps on how to flag non-inclusive behaviours can help guide colleagues to discuss examples of racism with their senior colleagues or HR contacts”. 

The report found that of those who had not taken action after witnessing a racist incident, one in five (21 per cent) said this was because they were unsure who to talk to. Others believed racism at work was not their concern, with more than one in ten (14 per cent) employees stating that the incident was “none of their business”, a proportion which had increased by 20 per cent since 2018. 

Suki Sandhu OBE, chief executive and founder of INvolve and Audeliss, agreed that employers should provide staff with resources to foster inclusive work environments, and leadership teams should form a large part of this. “Change can begin in the boardroom with the implementation of effective DEI strategy, but momentum must be maintained by leadership and those at all levels,” he said, adding that all employees must take part and have “shared accountability”.

The report also found a disparity between different demographics on their experience of racial inequality. Black employees were four times as likely as white employees, and two times as likely as Asian employees to say racism existed at work.

Black respondents were three times as likely as white respondents to say that racism is a problem at work. However, Black employees were 3.5 times as likely white employees and 1.6 times as likely as Asian respondents to feel comfortable discussing racism at work.

Luftur Ali, senior policy adviser at the CIPD, said the research showed a “deeply disappointing” increase in racial discrimination, and echoed the CIPD’s calls for the introduction of mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting, as well as its guidance for race inclusion in the workplace. “It’s essential to create a world of work where everyone can achieve their full potential and feel a sense of safety and belonging,” he said.