The role of HR and leaders in tackling racial discrimination

To stamp out workplace inequality, people professionals and leaders must be prepared to call out and intervene in instances of racism, says Nike Ajibowo

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Racism is a lived experience as with other forms of discrimination. Following the murder of George Floyd in the US in 2020, many of us have come to the realisation that people of colour are faced with challenges that their white counterparts may never face either in or outside of the workplace. 

George Floyd changed how the world viewed racism. His death brought to light what some describe as deep rooted racism which continues to exist in many societies. Many of us watched how a person with power and privilege could kneel on the neck of another human being for several minutes on the guise of undertaking his role as a police officer. The fact is, racism in the workplace can feel nearly as unbelievable as that, and is sometimes perpetuated in the guise of undertaking one’s duty at work. His death also opened up workplace discussions around racism, and while these can be difficult, discrimination is a topic which cannot be avoided by people professionals. 

As there are laws against discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and other protected characteristic across many jurisdictions including the UK, some may argue that discrimination, especially racism, is not widespread or at least not overtly in the workplace. I am inclined to agree that a person is more likely to experience covert racism in today's workplace than overt racism, including but not limited to micro-aggressions: actions that when reported on their own, may be perceived as a person being too sensitive, overreacting or the incident being a misunderstanding. 

Leaders hold a critical role, especially in today’s workplace, in addressing racism and all forms of discrimination, otherwise, racism and other forms of discrimination would continue to fester. There is a strong growing business case for organisations to ensure a diverse, safe and inclusive workplace. Staff need to feel included at work to be creative, innovative and productive, and addressing racism and all other forms of discrimination is one way to achieve this. 

People leaders should consider creating an anti-racism statement, charter or a set of principles and values which serves as the yardstick for their organisations. It is essential to also consider the intersectional elements in such a charter and include gender, sexual orientation, disability, age and other protected characteristics. Organisations should also consider establishing working groups and staff networks where staff can openly share and learn from one another in safe spaces.

So, when you witness a racist action or see a racially biassed decision, what can or should you do as an HR professional?

Ask questions

Asking questions helps the decision maker to think through their decision or action. For example, ask why their recruitment or promotion decisions appear to favour one race predominantly and consistently disfavour others. Sometimes people are not even conscious that they have been racially biassed in their actions or decisions. Having an open discussion with leaders helps to challenge their thought process and rethink some of their decisions more objectively.

Listen and maintain confidentiality

Avoid the ‘fight or flight’ approach. This means when a staff member raises allegation of racism or other forms of discrimination in the workplace, HR professionals should listen with empathy. It is essential to listen and keep an open mind in order to get the facts in an unbiased manner. Victims may feel gaslit if they are immediately told that their allegation is simply a misunderstanding or their opinion. 

HR professionals also need to avoid initiating a ‘mob action’ by spreading the allegations to people who have no role in the grievance process. Breach of confidentiality on discrimination cases can have a negative impact on staff reputation and career, including retaliation depending on the power or privilege of the alleged perpetrator(s). Therefore, it is important to seek the staff’s views regarding how they wish their complaint should be managed.

It is essential to recognise that racism is a lived experience, and can negatively impact on staff mental health and wellbeing, as well as productivity. Often, a timely informal intervention, such as a constructive discussion between the relevant parties, may suffice. A mediation process may also work, providing consent has been sought from all parties. In cases where a more formal process would be necessary, for example an investigation, it is essential to initiate the process in a timely manner. Grievance processes which take several months can cause undue stress for those concerned. 

As people professionals and leaders, we can help with dismantling the systems that aid workplace racism, and all other forms of discrimination in the workplace. We can also build new ones which promote inclusion. When it comes to managing discrimination cases in the workplace, people professionals  and leaders should not be bystanders but lead in promoting equity, diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Nike Ajibowo Chartered FCIPD is head of employment relations and inclusion at Plan International