Michael has career development experience, having worked for various governmental and business organizations, locally and internationally.
Racial Discrimination in the Workplace
Though this may sound obvious, it's worth repeating: no one should ever be seen as inferior nor incapacitated because of their pigmentation. Yet, despite the fact that having black or colored skin is not a disease, many still act as though it is.
We tend to believe that we live in a civilized, post-racial society and workplace racism is a thing of the past. The statistics beg to differ.
In one study conducted by Professors Mullainathan and Bertrand, 5,000 resumes were forwarded in response to 1,300 newspaper ads for various job positions. These applicant names in the resumes had either black or white-sounding names.
Previous studies had been conducted to establish the names that would give the highest impression of belonging to either race. The result was that the applications with white-sounding names received 50% more response calls from recruiters than their counterparts.
The Impact of Racial Discrimination
Aside from one group being favored over another when hiring or promoting, racial discrimination often takes other indirect or subtle forms. These can range from jokes, epithets, mockeries, and threats to the derogatory use of images and other forms of media. When left unchecked, it spills over into more extreme forms that include hostility and violence.
Racial discrimination stems from subjective biases or stereotypes that are expressed either directly or implicitly. Passive aggression or microaggression can be just as damaging as open aggression. Discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity not only marginalizes people, it subjects them to psychological and emotional stress that can lead to chronic medical conditions.
At the workplace, when your personality, words, or actions are undermined because of your ethnicity, this serves to alienate you from the very team with whom you should be pulling together. The result is a loss of the sense of belonging which is the basis or fulcrum of cooperation in the workplace.
How the Trend Develops
Why does racial discrimination exist in workplaces in the first place and what causes it to spread? First, there is a default tendency in people that causes them to gravitate toward the things that remind them of themselves and what they are familiar with. People are by nature often predisposed to protect and strengthen their own sense of social identity. This predisposition can lead to inner fears that are irrational.
The fear of being vulnerable breeds insecurity. It becomes more comfortable to connect with what we are used to rather than to attempt to build new bridges. This is despite the fact that connecting with someone or something different could provide a new learning experience.
It is this root of insecurity that eventually leads to self-protection and the delusion that putting down others will make us feel better about ourselves - especially those whom we perceive as being different or even inferior.
They have not really done anything wrong, but our own fears and insecurities have distorted our sense of reality and make us perceive their presence as a threat. And since our sense of social identity is solely built on what we know and are used to, it follows that anything different must be a threat to that security.
This is why when an organization fails to identify and root out racial discrimination from all its centers, the scourge can spread like a disease that erodes trust and builds insurmountable walls.
The following are steps that can be taken to deal with racial discrimination in a workplace context.
- Gather the facts
- Respond objectively
- Engage the experts
- Become proactive
- Redefine the Norm
1. Gather the Facts
You are entitled to work in an environment that is free from all forms of discrimination. Every organization needs to have a clear anti-racist policy and how incidents of discrimination are to be handled. There should be best practices on how to interact in the workplace without bias or prejudgement.
Be aware of your rights and privileges as an employee of your organization. Keep yourself informed and updated on the regulations that your company has in place. What does the policy state you should do if you were a victim or a bystander?
The nature and expression of racial discrimination differs across genders because the issues that men face are likely to be different from those faced by women. Anything you find unclear in the stipulated terms and conditions of service should be clarified by getting in touch with Human Resources. Also, be deliberate in supporting the efforts that the company is undertaking to address and curb racism as well as other forms of workplace discrimination.
Acquaint yourself also with the Discrimination Act and other legal statutes concerning how racism is defined and how it should be addressed in the workplace. In the US for example, this is spelled out in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which highlights the illegality of discriminating against others on the basis of race in recruiting, benefits, compensation, promotion, and other workplace scenarios.
If there is an instance of racial discrimination, avoid being carried away by the heightened emotional state of the moment such that you lose your presence of mind. Make a point of recording the time, date, place, action or statement, and other circumstances under which the matter occurred. Gathering all the information required to prove the case is necessary in order to consolidate your position. It should not just be your word against theirs.
Keeping some hard evidence is necessary, especially if it is an on-going situation because you will have the essentials required to build an air-tight case. Leverage the use of available resources like mobile devices and security cameras to prepare video and audio recordings that can be retained as evidence especially if the case needs to go beyond the organization where you work and into the hands of law enforcement.
2. Respond Objectively
If someone in your workplace makes a racist remark, handle the issue from a proactive point of view rather than a reactive one. Approach them in private and discuss the situation with them reasonably. When discussing the matter in person, repeat the statement they made using the same words they used without adding your own emotions or tone to them.
Your objective is to have them explain what they meant when they spoke these words and why they hold this opinion. This immediately places them in a state where they have to mentally consider and weigh the impact of their action or statement. If there is no change and the problem persists after your conversation, take it to the next level by turning it over to Human Resources.
Remember, whether it is a discriminatory remark, an off-handed joke or slur, responding in kind only serves to degrade you to the same level as the aggressor. Though this is challenging because feelings are involved, the first order of business here is to control yourself. Only then will you have the disposition to act objectively and confront the root of the problem rather than its effects. The same applies to discrimination in other areas like promotion.
As has been said before, the only way for evil to continue is for good men to do nothing. If no action is taken, there are no countermeasures and so the trend is likely to continue. On the other hand, speaking out compels the other party to consider the consequences of their behavior and their personal responsibility for their words and actions.
Sometimes an aggressor can be overbearing not only due to personal insecurities but in order to intimidate others because this is what feeds their sense of control. Don't allow fear to hold you back from taking action because positive organizational change benefits all parties involved.
In some cases, the perpetrator(s) may not even be aware of the negative impact of their words and actions because these have been so ingrained in them or in the company culture. If no one counters the behavior, it is bound to persist and become acceptable. If when reported the issue is unresolved even with the involvement of the employer and Human Resources, it is best to seek legal counsel.
3. Engage the Experts
Though many business organizations may shy away from the issue of race, recent events have brought this problem to the fore and it can no longer be ignored. What institutions should do instead is to encourage open discussions about equal treatment of races and how to foster inclusion in the workplace.
A diversity and inclusion consultant can help the organization establish and execute the right customized approach and program to dealing with the situation. In order to do this, they typically review past and present incidences and interview the affected workers. They will also weigh these matters against the existing policy to identify changes that need to be made in order to turn things around.
Further, there are consultants that offer businesses independent training sessions on racial discrimination. Regular workshops, seminars, or other meetings would be more beneficial than just having everyone sign off after watching a short video or reading a single document. All employees need to be fully equipped with the resources required to respond quickly and efficiently.
If you feel the mechanisms in place in the organization are inadequate in dealing with your case, a workplace discrimination lawyer will be able to evaluate the situation from a settlement point of view and render his professional opinion on the feasibility of undertaking legal measures.
4. Become Proactive
There is a danger in becoming so absorbed in the problem that it takes a central place in your life. There are people who sunk into such depths of depression due to derogatory remarks, they eventually became suicidal. Remember that life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond. Allowing what they do to you to affect you negatively is exactly what the perpetrators want.
Maintaining positive well-being emotionally, physically and spiritually, will keep you from overreacting to negative situations. People who are habitually secure in their identity are not moved to the extreme when their identity comes under attack. Taking good care of yourself holistically will position you to overcome such situations.
Don't allow yourself to be incited to the level where you begin to police the workplace or spark off an anti-racist crusade. This only serves to sow and propagate fear and suspicion in the culture of the organization. Avoid extremes that introduce divisions and turn you into an antagonist.
Instead, lead by example by being someone who embraces others who are different from yourself, making them feel valued and appreciated. Prejudice cannot cast out prejudice. We should work on our own prejudices by learning to connect with those who are different, rather than only mingling around those who have the same culture as we do. Before we can put a case forward, it is essential that we ascertain that we are not part of the problem, but the solution.
The ideal situation is not to wait until discrimination occurs in the workplace. If you are someone from a different culture or background, participate and be a source of encouragement to others who are from diverse backgrounds. They will form a support network around you. On a broader scale, if the organization or business entity involves or caters for a multicultural audience, it is best to have representation from different walks of life in management and decision-making.
5. Redefine the Norm
The main place to begin dealing with racial discrimination is the company culture. Unless there is comprehensive change at this level, all efforts can be likened to attacking the branches while the root of the problem is still present. As long as the culture is not changed, the source of the problem remains. So no matter how many branches of the tree are cut down, it's just a matter of time before new ones spring up in their place.
When the ideals of inclusiveness and diversity are encouraged and adopted, the behavior of all parties involved in the organization will follow suit. It is much easier to identify and isolate something that is a break from the norm than to handle what is deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric. If the right attitudes and perceptions are adopted, people will react against racial discrimination directly without having to be reminded or controlled.
Studies conducted in organizational behavior have shown that fostering cultural diversity in the workplace reduces employee turnover and absenteeism. It may take time and effort to turn around the company culture, but as a long-term strategy, it yields dividends.
Simply hiring people from different backgrounds will not solve the problem. Many companies seem to think that they can deal with the situation in this way and then point to themselves as an example of how inclusive they are. If there is a problem of racism in your company, you will not be able to solve it by simply recruiting an employee from another background.
The key is learning how to build a culture that enables people from all races to feel appreciated and valued, not just tolerated. Walking the talk is what will help heal and turn things around. The management must lead by example, have an open-door policy and be approachable such that no one will feel isolated or undervalued.