Last reviewed 4 September 2020

The experience of black, Asian and minority ethnic people in the workplace is distinct in many ways. Racial abuse from customers, race-based bullying and harassment along with subtle and overt workplace discrimination can all come together to create a powerful and toxic cocktail which can have damaging ill-health effects on workers — as well as negatively impacting the organisation. Vicky Powell looks at the latest advice on creating a healthier working environment for black and other minority ethnic workers.

2020: racial discrimination at work

There’s no doubt that 2020 has been a difficult working year for many. The coronavirus pandemic has caused major health anxiety and brought job losses, economic recession and work-related worries. Workers around the world have had to cope with job insecurity, reductions in incomes and additional work-related stress. Many employees have juggled home schooling their children while adapting to a completely new style of working from home alongside their partners and families.

Towards the end of May, 2020 was already standing out as a year of major upheaval when the death of 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, filled screens across the world. News reports and social media platforms showed a white police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes as the middle-aged man repeated that he couldn’t breathe.

George Floyd’s death became a catalyst for protests about racism around the world, and in the corporate sphere managers are now asking what can be done to tackle race and ethnically based discrimination in the workplace.

Richard Iferenta is a partner at professional services firm KPMG and has been described as one of Britain’s top 10 most influential black people. He is also Chair of the Race Leadership Team at Prince Charles’ corporate outreach charity Business in the Community (BITC).

Shortly after George Floyd’s death, Richard Iferenta said: “We all know that, in addition to the atrocities we see in the press, there are countless other examples of institutional and individual incidents that go unheard and unnoticed outside the black community. But now that the story is being told, businesses must respond and show their solidarity and support. Silence is not an option and we must stand up for what is right and what needs to change.”

Facts, figures and effects of racism in the workplace

According to BITC, one in four black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) employees reported in 2018 that they had witnessed or experienced racist harassment or bullying from managers in the last two years.

Corporate trends also indicate an increase in the proportion of people from a BAME background who report they have witnessed or experienced racist harassment or bullying from customers or service users (up to 19% in 2018 from 16% in 2015). People of a mixed ethnicity have experienced the largest increase in harassment or bullying from customers (20% up from 13%).

More recent research from BITC into inclusive behaviours has found that around 44% of employees have experienced non-inclusive behaviours in the workplace over the past three years and this increases to:

  • 58% for BAME employees

  • 58% for workers under 35

  • 50% for women.

Of those who had experienced this behaviour, 11% ultimately left their organisation.

It should be noted that non-inclusive behaviour can be conscious or unconscious, and range from bias, harassment and discrimination to interrupting someone, gestures and tone of voice or words used. Although the intention of the perpetrator might not be to cause offence, the impact of these behaviours can cause employees to lose confidence and feel isolated or disengaged.

Incidents at work — some examples

Researchers at the University of Manchester have collated TUC information on racism at work in a report entitled Racism Ruins Lives. The report explores the impacts of racial discrimination at work on workers’ lives, including with regard to how it causes stress, anxiety and depression. Incidents recorded include the following.

  • A Pakistani female working in digital communications recalled “being told to ensure the office door is closed ‘because one time this black guy just walked in and all the women were really shaken up by it’”.

  • An African female in customer services told researchers about “people constantly wanting to touch my Afro hair”.

  • A black British female in customer service said, “I have been touched and petted like an animal by complete strangers in the workplace. Made to feel like a curiosity.”

  • A Chinese male working in transport had racist remarks sprayed on the door at work. He reported the incident to his line manager. Instead of offering to help, the manager suggested he had upset the local people.

  • An African female worker said, “[The situation] has led to severe depression which has made my entire life vulnerable.”

  • An Asian British male social worker said of his experience of racial discrimination at work, “This caused me a lot of health issues, emotional issues and I developed anxiety and panic attacks.”

How race and ethnicity impact work-related stress and health

Last year an existing report on how race and ethnicity impact work-related stress and health, published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), was updated.

The research looked at occupational stress and other mental ill health in black (Caribbean), Asian and white workers to try to understand the reasons for differences in occupational stress between ethnic groups.

An earlier study had found BAME workers were experiencing much higher levels of stress at work than white workers (30% of the BAME group reported very high, or extremely high, levels of stress at work compared to 18% of white workers).

Occupational health researchers felt it was important to try to analyse why there were excess stress levels in ethnic minority workers. What they concluded was that the combination of racial discrimination with gender and ethnicity was “powerfully influential in work stress”.

They warned that this makes particular groups (such as black Caribbean women who have experienced racial discrimination) more likely to experience work stress.

Conversely, researchers have concluded that tackling racial discrimination at work, by creating an inclusive, supportive and open workplace, will impact on work stress, and in turn reduce the potential for psychological damage.

Tackling racial discrimination at work

Research has indicated that only 22% of employees say that they have received support to call out racial harassment and bullying behaviour if observed.

In response, Dr Stephen Ashe, co-author of the Racism Ruins Lives report has called on employers to “abandon the laissez-faire approach” to tackling racism at work.

He recommends that employers ensure senior leaders sign up to a policy agreement that guarantees racial, ethnic and other equality, and also enable diversity champions to take the time, space and resources required to fulfil their role, particularly in the ability to investigate and respond to reports of racism.

BITC’s Race at Work Charter to support race equality in the workplace and commit to a zero-tolerance policy on bullying and harassment urges employers to commit to five key actions.

  1. Appoint an executive sponsor for race: Sponsors for race provide visible leadership on race and ethnicity in their organisation and can drive key actions such as setting targets for ethnic minority representation, briefing recruitment agencies and supporting mentoring and sponsorship.

  2. Capture ethnicity data and publicise progress: Capturing ethnicity data is important for establishing a baseline and measuring progress. It is also a crucial step towards an organisation being able to report on ethnicity pay differentials.

  3. Commit at Board level to zero tolerance of harassment and bullying: Commitment from the top is needed to achieve change.

  4. Make clear that supporting equality in the workplace is the responsibility of all leaders and managers: Actions can include ensuring that performance objectives for leaders and managers cover their responsibilities to support fairness for all staff.

  5. Take action that supports ethnic minority career progression: Actions can include embedding mentoring, reverse mentoring and sponsorship in organisations.

BITC also recommends a five-step process for addressing racism on the ground in the workplace.

  1. Take responsibility: Diffusion of responsibility and bystander apathy is a problem in racial discrimination at work and elsewhere. Just because other people may witness the event does not mean that they will intervene or report it. BITC urges allies — people who take responsibility — to step up and intervene, either directly or indirectly, using their five-step approach, rather than simply being a bystander to the racial incident.

  2. Check it is safe to intervene and use this assessment to determine your actions: Assess the situation before deciding to directly respond. Are you physically and psychologically safe? Is the person being harassed physically safe? Does it seem unlikely that the situation will escalate? Direct intervention is only the correct response if you can answer yes to all these questions.

  3. Be confident, clear and not rude when intervening directly: Use general statements such as “That’s inappropriate, disrespectful, not okay, etc” or “This makes me feel uncomfortable” when speaking up and ask the person who is being harassed how they feel. Be short and succinct, and try not to engage in dialogue, debate, or an argument with the harasser, as this risks the situation escalating. If the instigator responds, try your best to assist the person who was on the receiving end of the negative behaviour instead of engaging with the harasser.

  4. Indirect intervention works too: Take an indirect approach to de-escalate the situation by creating a distraction, asking a question or starting a conversation with one of the people involved (eg “Do you know where this meeting room is?” or “Have you got a moment to chat about something?”). This draws attention away from the event and may help to diffuse the situation.

  5. Don’t be a lone wolf — get help from others if necessary: Speak to someone near you who notices what is happening and might be in a better position to intervene and work together. Better yet, find someone in a position of authority, like HR or a senior manager, and ask them for help. Some organisations have trained and appointed Respect and Inclusion Ambassadors to assist people in speaking up and empower employees in creating a respectful workplace culture. If this is not possible, use your best judgment on how the individual might want you to intervene.

Support and communication after an incident

After a situation where racist or inappropriate behaviour has taken place, it is important to support the person affected by recording the incident (eg in a live document, or by email including the time, date and location). However, always ask the person who was on the receiving end of the negative behaviour what they want to do with the record and never share it online or use it without their permission.

BITC also stresses the value of making a point to communicate with the individual afterwards to let them know what you witnessed and ask how best you can support them. Signpost them to resources and possible next steps (eg contacting HR, their line manager and/or an external helpline) and offer to help them make a report if they want to. Tell them that you have documented the incident and ask them if they would like you to share it.

An opportunity for change

The UK’s TUC believes that unfair treatment based on race remains widespread, while discussion of workplace racism remains “fairly muted”.

However, the current climate offers a fresh opportunity to achieve lasting change in racial fairness and equality at work.

Richard Iferenta says, “The time for action is now. This is not the time for nice words and platitudes. Let us make a difference for the black community and our country at large. With this in mind, I strongly urge the Chairmen and CEOs in the business community to make commitments to stamp out racism of all forms in the business community.”

It is estimated that race equality in the UK could potentially bring a £24 billion per year boost to the UK economy, and organisations with more diverse teams have 36% better financial returns.

So, for employers and managers who are prepared to embrace the challenges, there will be significant rewards – and not least in terms of happier, healthier ethnic minority workers who are less stressed and anxious at work, less likely to be off sick and more able to function at their very best, as productive and committed employees.

BITC’s Race at Work Charter and related information can be found on the BITC website.