Steve Vale, HR Consultant, summarises the new findings which are set out in a report Equality, Diversity and Racism in the Workplace: A Qualitative Analysis of the 2015 Race at Work Survey and the messages for employers.

The reported rise in incidents following Brexit raises questions over how far racist attitudes in the UK have been eradicated, rather than simply being suppressed in more recent times. So far as the workplace is concerned, a Race at Work survey which was commissioned by Business in the Community in the summer of 2015, almost one year before the EU referendum, revealed that racial harassment and bullying remained prevalent in many organisations. The post-Brexit climate has prompted Business in the Community (BITC) to commission further, more detailed work using the findings of the 2015 survey, with an in-depth qualitative analysis of the data gathered. This is aimed at encouraging employers to take action now and at galvanising senior leaders and employers in the public, private and voluntary sectors into bold action which says that racist behaviour has no place in their organisations.


The latest report is a follow up to the 2015 BITC report Race at Work. The findings from that report and the subsequent:

  • Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report, Healing a Divided Britain: The Need for a Comprehensive Race Equality Strategy, published in August 2016 (which found that people from ethnic minority groups have higher unemployment rates than white people)

  • announcement by the Prime Minister Theresa May of the launch of “an unprecedented audit of public services to reveal racial disparities and help end the burning injustices many people experience across Britain”

suggested a need for further and more detailed exploration of the views of the 24,457 ethnic minority and White British employees aged over 16 years old, living in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, who contributed to the research for the 2015 report, either through a panel survey conducted by YouGov or through a public open survey.

The aim of the new report is, through qualitative analysis of responses given in the previous survey, to explore:

  • employees’ accounts of experiencing and/or witnessing racist harassment or bullying at work

  • how, if at all, employers promote equality, diversity and fairness in the workplace

and, in doing so:

  • to provide further insights into the nature, scale and human impact of racist bullying and harassment in the workplace

  • to draw further attention to some of the specific barriers that prevent the realisation of equality, diversity and fairness at work.

The intention is in part to show that the audit announced by the Prime Minister should also examine both racial inequality and the racism faced by ethnic minority people working in the public sector.

The 2015 report Race at Work

The 2015 report had found that employees were not comfortable talking about race at work: 34% of ethnic minority workers and 42% of white employees felt that their colleagues were uncomfortable talking about race.

The 2015 report also suggested that there was a considerable way to go in terms of providing equality, diversity and fairness training. For example, less than 50% of employers offered such training, and, only 65% of participants in the survey reported that it was mandatory.

The 2015 report also noted that “racial harassment and bullying within the workplace is prevalent”: 30% of employees reported that they had witnessed or experienced racist harassment or bullying from managers, colleagues, customers or suppliers in the previous year. This appeared to be an increase in the levels of racist harassment and bullying that had previously been reported. Other notable statistics from the 2015 report included:

  • 17% of ethnic minority workers had witnessed racist bullying and harassment from clients, customers and service users

  • 16% of ethnic minority employees had directly experienced racist bullying and harassment from clients, customers and service users.

In summary, the statistics provided in the 2015 Race at Work report clearly demonstrated that racism continued to be a persistent feature of working life for ethnic minority workers. Experiencing and witnessing racism was reported by employees working in a diverse range of occupations across several employment sectors. The fact that respondents indicated that they were not comfortable talking about race at work also raised questions about employees’ experiences of equality, diversity and fairness training and how employers responded to reports of racism.

The new report: Equality, Diversity and Racism in the Workplace: A Qualitative Analysis of the 2015 Race at Work Survey

The 2015 Race at Work survey recorded several thousand comments and statements from ethnic minority employees who had experienced and/or witnessed racism at work. The new report has analysed and assessed these comments in more detail in order to shed further light on the nature and extent of the problem.

In these comments, a large number of ethnic minorities and many White British employees reported experiencing and witnessing (respectively) racist bullying and harassment at the hands of managers, colleagues, contractors, customers and service users, for example:

  • “jokes”, “banter” and practical jokes, particularly in terms of accent and the pronunciation of names

  • physical violence, threats, intimidation and verbal abuse

  • employers refusing to accommodate and/or recognise faith practices, celebrations and festivals

  • racial and cultural stereotyping, including being judged on the basis of such stereotypes rather than on the basis of job performance

  • being passed over for promotion and additional training opportunities in favour of white counterparts, including in instances where ethnic minority employees were more qualified and/or already doing the job on a temporary basis

  • being subjected to excessive surveillance and scrutiny by colleagues, supervisors and managers

  • customers refusing service from ethnic minority employees.

While some ethnic minority employees shared their experiences of racism by describing a single incident, others reported experiencing more than one example of racial discrimination, exclusion, harassment and bullying. What is more, many ethnic minority workers also reported that they had experienced and/or witnessed racism on a regular, if not systematic, basis. It was notable that the accounts of racism offered by ethnic minority workers were also echoed by many White British employees who also recognised and perceived the entrenched nature of racism in the workplace.

The nature and quantity of the comments received leads the authors of the new report to comment: in January [2017], the former Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that “it was much harder to see open discrimination and blatant racism of decades gone by”. In contrast, the Race at Work survey clearly shows that ethnic minority employees still face the open and blatant forms of racism that the former Prime Minister and others often suggest has dissipated, if not disappeared completely.

Main findings of the new report

The main findings from the qualitative analysis were:

  • Racism very much remains a persistent, if not routine and systematic, feature of work life in Britain, thus contributing to the organisation of society in ways that structurally disadvantage ethnic minority workers.

    The report lists numerous comments and experiences which show how ethnic minority workers are frequently subjected to racism by colleagues, managers, customers, clients and service users. These show how racism is experienced in a wide variety of ways, ranging from “everyday banter” to violence and intimidation. Alongside Islamophobia and anti-semitism, crude and overt forms of anti-Black and anti-Asian racism remains common. For example, Black and Asian employees reported they commonly faced being told to “go home” and “go back to your own country”.

    In addition, ethnic minority workers also shared their experiences of being subjected to more subtle and less explicit forms of racism. These included patterns of behaviour where they were deliberately ignored and treated with disdain and impatience, and/or white colleagues using a different tone of voice and body language than they would normally do when talking and interacting with white colleagues.

    Racism was often expressed in ways whereby different religious groups were represented as being a single racial group, such as, for example, Asian employees from non-Muslim backgrounds being subjected to Islamophobia.

    Many ethnic minority women reported experiencing racism at work: the Race at Work survey recorded the experiences of Muslim women who had either been asked to and/or felt pressured into removing religious clothing. Many of these suggested that wearing a hijab could have an unjustified bearing on perceptions of a Muslim woman’s suitability for particular roles.

    Ethnic minority employees also reported experiencing racism as a form of cultural domination in which they felt pressured to, or were directly asked to, conform to “White British” norms and cultural practices, and forced to conform to what is often framed as being “acceptable” or so-called “normal”, masculine culture.

    Employees also reported issues around language, such as the anglicising of names, being required to speak English at all times when at work and language proficiency being (falsely) cited to justify why ethnic minority employees were not promoted. A perceived lack of language proficiency was also seen as limiting recruitment and access to training opportunities, and in other instances was cited as having led to demotion and unnecessary and excessive surveillance and scrutiny by managers and supervisors. The comments received suggested that this was most prevalent among ethnic minority workers in the public sector (this may, of course, be attributable to attempts to ensure compliance with government policy on fluency in English for those in front-line roles, although the relevant Code of Practice is quite clear that fluency does not relate to regional or international accents, dialects, speech impediments or the tone of conversations).

  • Experiencing and/or witnessing racism impacts on ethnic minority employees in a number of ways.

    Racism was reported to have a negative impact on the careers of ethnic minority employees, reducing opportunities for additional training and career progression. Many ethnic minority workers also reported seeking alternative forms of employment as a direct response to experiencing racism.

    Some employees suggested that racism being a routine part of working life was often a direct consequence of a philosophy that “the customer is always right”. What is more, this notion often limited what employees felt they could do to challenge racism.

    Some suggested that having to accept racism was an engrained feature of life at work, because attempts to challenge racism would have a negative impact on their chances of promotion.

    While many ethnic minority employees felt able to either go to their equality and diversity officer or trade union representative, the lack of any recognisable form of leadership and representation prevented many employees from making a complaint or taking action. As a result, employees said that they received little or no support inside their place of work when it came to speaking out against racism and the forms of disempowerment and acceptance that this often engendered.

    Racism impacted on the emotional and psychological wellbeing of ethnic minority employees in a number of ways. This ranged from feelings of humiliation, ridicule, belittlement and worthlessness to a loss of confidence. Witnessing how managers responded to instances and reports of racism, as well as fearing that there would be repercussions, also prevented some ethnic minority workers from reporting racism.

    Ethnic minority workers also reported suffering from anxiety, stress and depression as a result of their treatment at work.

    Employees from ethnic minorities commented that having their job performance more heavily criticised was one way in which they experienced racism. This created added pressure to ensure that their work “was up to standard”.

  • The promotion of equality, diversity and fairness is inconsistent across workplaces.

    Some employers promote these values in a variety of ways, sometimes in an extensive manner and on a regular basis, but a large section of survey respondents reported that they did not know or that they were unsure of what their employer did to promote equality, diversity and fairness. Some employees even suggested that this was “non-existent”.

  • Some managers were said to have taken a zero-tolerance approach to racism in the workplace, offering support to those on the receiving end but it was more common for ethnic minority employees to state that managers were also one of the main culprits of this.

    Managers were commonly described as being indifferent to racism, raising serious questions in relation to leadership in the workplace when it comes to opposing racism and promoting equality and diversity. Worse still, managers were identified in some responses as being among those responsible for racist bullying and harassment in the workplace.

    Many ethnic minority employees commented that they felt as if they were banging their heads against a “brick wall” when trying to talk about race and/or challenge racism from managers — this was a common experience for employees working in a wide variety of industrial sectors.

    Listening to the voices of ethnic minority employees suggests that some workplaces have clear managerial hierarchies predicated along racial lines, with a clear “chain of command”, whereby authority and power rests in the hands of a white manager or company executive, most of whom are men. Some ethnic minority employees reported feeling unable to “speak out” or directly challenge racism because this would mean confronting someone above them in the power structure of the organisation.

    The comments provided also revealed that there was much variation in the way that managers handled racism from customers, clients and service users. In some cases, White British respondents provided examples of their managers clearly communicating that racism was unacceptable and would not be tolerated. However, ethnic minority employees suggested that this was not always the case — as referred to above, managerial indifference towards racism was often seen as being underpinned by the notion that “the customer is always right”.

    Some managers were reported as having responded to racism by transferring the person who had reported witnessing and/or experiencing racism, with the person who has decided to “speak out” and/or challenge racism, rather than racism itself, identified as being “the problem”.

  • Trade union representatives were identified as being an important source of support in helping ethnic minority workers to “speak out” and challenge racism at work.

    This was most prominent among ethnic minority employees working in the public sector. While ethnic minority workers were positive in regard to the advice, support and action undertaken by trade union representatives, particularly where they experienced managerial indifference or racism at the hands of a manager, it was also suggested that trade union representatives, like managers, could also be indifferent to racism.

    Discussing support with survey respondents raised issues over what was meant by resolution of a complaint. Some employees reported that the person who had been racist towards them did not face any form of inquiry or disciplinary procedure. In some cases, it was reported that the person who had experienced racism had to continue working with the individual that had been racist towards them. In other instances, reports of racism were said to have been “settled” by the culprit apologising to the person they had been racist towards.

    The report notes that more work needs to be done on the notion of “resolution”, including assessing how instances of racism are handled and what constitutes an acceptable outcome, especially from the perspective of the person experiencing racism. It comments that, in terms of “resolution”, it is important to ensure that apologising does not become a means of avoiding conflict while maintaining the status quo. Grievance procedures must not force the person that has experienced racism to accept an apology. Instead, an act of apology should be part of a broader process that actually addresses the nature and scale of racism in the workplace.

  • Many employees commended equality and diversity practitioners for the role that they played in promoting equality, diversity and fairness and supporting colleagues who had experienced and/or witnessed racism.

    Equality and diversity practitioners were recognised as playing an important role in both promoting and attempting to achieve equality, diversity and fairness in the workplace. There was also recognition that those undertaking these roles often face quite considerable barriers and obstacles. However, some ethnic minority workers were critical of the work of equality and diversity practitioners, suggesting that some did not pay adequate attention to challenging racism and addressing racial inequality in the workplace.

    The responses provided by ethnic minority workers suggested that there is a need to reflect on such criticisms. For example, it was suggested by some that the person undertaking the role of equality and diversity officer was not suitable for this task because they had either little understanding of, or did not pay adequate attention to, racial equality specifically, tending to focus on wider issues of equality and diversity.

  • White resentment and allegations of “reverse racism” are a significant problem.

    It was notable that some White British employees suggested that activities and training promoting equality and diversity were no longer necessary, and there were also suggestions that equality and diversity activities provided ethnic minority employees with an unfair advantage and preferential treatment.

    These types of reaction appear to be part of a broader, overall negative, if not hostile, response to equality and diversity work, and indicate that it is still necessary to inform white employees about:

    • the nature of ethnic minority disadvantage

    • how this is reinforced by racism in the workplace

    • why race relations legislation and equality and diversity duties are still very much needed.

    The comments received showed that many white employees were attentive to the racism faced by their ethnic minority colleagues. Alongside reporting the racism endured by their colleagues, it was clear that some white workers do value equality and diversity in the workplace, as well as expressing, to varying degrees, a commitment to a workplace free of racism.

    However, others were suspicious of equality and diversity policies — for example, the appointment of ethnic minority employees was often considered to be the result of such policies supposedly giving ethnic minority employees an “unfair advantage” and/or “preferential treatment”. It was also suggested that ethnic minority employees were recruited/appointed as a result of the employer being obliged to fill an “ethnic quota”.

    Such views contributed to ethnic minority employees feeling devalued at work, and tend to feed into and reinforce claims of “reverse racism” — a claim whereby members of the dominant majority racial group is said to be the victim of racism.

    White employees also appeared to feel more confident in terms of “speaking out”, “stepping in” and “dealing with” what they saw as reverse racism. This stands in stark contrast to ethnic minority workers who often felt unable to report and challenge racism.

  • In light of the above, it is important that we critically examine what equality and diversity work actually does, including identifying the barriers and obstacles that hinder this work.

    This includes thinking critically about the limitations of existing approaches to equality, diversity and fairness, particularly in relation to whether expressions of commitment to equality, diversity and fairness and statements opposing racism are also partnered by clear and visible activity that addresses racism and racial inequality at work. These issues are explored below.

What does current equality and diversity work amount to?

The report notes that the survey established that many employers promote and achieve equality, diversity and fairness in a number of different ways, and through an extensive range of activities, including:

  • induction and/or (bi-)annual equality and diversity training and “diversity days”

  • implicit attitudes and unconscious bias training

  • equality and diversity reports, audits, assessment and reviews, including staff surveys and anonymous feedback forms

  • bullying and harassment workshops

  • career development and progression training and events

  • targeted recruitment and mentoring programmes

  • poster campaigns and publicity material on staff notice boards

  • creating and sponsoring Black and Minority Ethnic Networks, working groups, focus groups, listening groups and “drop-in sessions”

  • including equality and diversity practitioners and trade union representatives as part of recruitment, staff and managerial committees.

It points out, however, that the comments from employees indicated that equality and diversity work often takes place in workplaces and organisations that are indifferent, if not resistant, to the realisation of equality, diversity and fairness.

In addition, not all employers showed the same level of commitment. Less than 50% of employees had been offered equality, diversity and fairness training, and many employees said that such forms of training were often promoted “only occasionally”, “infrequently” and “when the need arises”. For some employees, the promotion of equality, diversity and fairness did not extend far beyond the existence of policy documents, the recruitment process and employee induction training.

A large number of employees were critical of their employer’s attempts to promote equality, diversity and fairness. More specifically, many employees referred to their employer’s attempts to promote these values as being “symbolic”, “tokenistic” and “ineffective”, if not a “box ticking exercise”.

Some of these comments came from public sector employees, notwithstanding the provisions of the Public Sector Equality Duty, requiring the promotion of race equality.

Limitations of existing approaches to equality and diversity

The new report goes on to examine some of the broader limitations of existing approaches to equality and diversity.

It comments that, if employers are serious about achieving equality, diversity and fairness, the persistence of racism and racial inequality should lead them to think critically about how the aims and objectives contained in their equality and diversity policy documents are put into action, and whether there is a gap between what such documents say, what employers actually do, and whether there are any restrictions placed on equality and diversity practitioners.

Race equality policy documents are often used by employers as expressions of commitment, indicators of “good performance” and as evidence that diversity has been achieved, but if employers talk about equality and diversity only in the context of compliance with law, this may be read as a sign of a weak commitment to these values, thus reinforcing the view that the promotion of equality and diversity has become a “box ticking exercise”.

Documents expressing a commitment to equality, diversity and fairness can also conceal the lack of equality and diversity within an organisation. They can obscure an employer’s indifference, if not unwillingness, to address these issues, and thus contribute to the maintenance of racism, exclusion and inequality.

Ensuring that all staff receive equality and diversity training, and that this training is mandatory, can be somewhat limited in terms of what it achieves. Training and promotional activities per se should not be interpreted as a statement of fact that an employer is “doing well” nor should they be interpreted as evidence that equality and diversity has been achieved.

While the demographic composition of a company or workplace may be diverse, this does not necessarily mean that racism and racial inequality are not a problem. Therefore, it is vital that recognising and taking pride in the diversity of the workforce does not distract employers from exploring whether racism and racial inequality is a problem and, where necessary, taking appropriate action.

While attitude testing and unconscious bias training have become increasingly popular among employers, there is a risk that focusing solely on such training as a response to racism and racial inequality individualises a problem that is structural and systemic in nature and may serve to obscure the nature of racism as a system of structures, institutions and relations with the power to discriminate and produce racial inequality.

Recommendations for the way forward

Having reviewed the comments and statements captured by the Race at Work survey, the report provides a further set of policy recommendations for government and employers.

For government, these include the following.

  • Commissioning research that explores the ways in which, if at all, employers are fulfilling their equality duties and how employers respond to instances of racism in the workplace.

  • Instituting new legislation regarding the procurement of government and public sector contracts to ensure that all tenders are subject to an Equality Impact Assessment.

  • Bringing forward proposals for an annual government review into the nature and scale of racism in the workplace and racial inequality in labour market participation.

  • Eliminating the costs of employment tribunals as a means of empowering employees to challenge racism at work.

  • Addressing the issue of “language proficiency” in ways that protect the rights of ethnic minority workers.

For employers, the report sets out a range of measures focusing on employer leadership, responsibility and accountability, these include the following.

  • Ensuring that a senior figure within the organisation, who is either trained or demonstrates a requisite level of experience or understanding, is made responsible for ensuring that the company has an anti-racism, equality and diversity policy in place and that this policy is shared with all staff, external stakeholders, contractors, clients and customers.

  • Ensuring that senior leadership figures sign a policy agreement that guarantees equality and diversity practitioners have the time, space and resources required to fulfil their role, particularly in terms of having time to investigate and respond to reports of racism, and establishing structures, roles and processes that unequivocally communicate that all reports of racism will be taken seriously and will be handled in a sensitive and timely manner.

  • Ensuring that equality and diversity training is made mandatory for all managerial staff.

  • Ensuring that senior managerial figures and all employees in leadership positions are clear about their organisation’s policies on racism, equality and diversity and acknowledge their responsibility to ensure that these policies are put into practice at all times.

  • Ensuring that senior organisational leaders and Human Resources staff work in a constructive, collaborative and transparent manner with trade unions, employee network groups and diversity and inclusion specialists.

  • Devising a clear set of equality targets aimed at eliminating levels of racial harassment and bullying incidents and complaints.

  • Ensuring that equality and diversity audits/assessments do not simply focus on measuring the demographic composition of the workforce, but also examine whether there is structural inequality in terms of pay, bonuses and levels and rates of recruitment and promotion.

  • Establishing ethnic minority employee networks which create “safe spaces” and offer support to people who have experienced racism, as well as enabling such a network to allow employees to collectively address the nature of racism and racial inequality in the organisation and across different work sites.


This latest report from BITC provides a useful basis for public sector employers to review and evaluate their practice, and is timely in amplifying the messages from the 2015 survey, in view of some of the apparent consequences of the Brexit vote. The comments on the shortcomings of the policies and practices of employers are authentic, and, while they come from employees of all sectors, it is worth noting that some come from employees of public sector organisations, including local authorities.

While it may be assumed that public sector employers will have in place many of the initiatives referred to in the report (and may even have anticipated some of the recommendations the report makes for employer actions), the report is extremely useful in suggesting the questions that should be asked in order to test the true effectiveness of a whole range of organisational policies, procedures and training arrangements, thereby ensuring that any organisational complacency on racism is eliminated and that any current failings are identified and addressed.


Equality, Diversity and Racism in the Workplace: A Qualitative Analysis of the 2015 Race at Work Survey, commissioned by BITC using data collected by YouGov and undertaken by the ESRC Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity, University of Manchester, is available here.

Steve Vale is a Consultant in Human Resources and is a regular contributor to Croner-i HR for Local Government. Croner-i HR for Local Government is an online employment law and practice reference source designed specifically for HR Managers and their teams in local government.

Last reviewed 30 March 2017