In light of the recent resurgence of anti-racism demonstrations, we hopefully have all heard and engaged with conversations about the Black diasporic experience in all aspects of life. The workplace has come to the forefront of these conversations, and it must be reviewed to be more inclusive, diverse and representative of all demographics at all levels. For example, in London, on average, Minority Ethnic Groups earn 21.7% less than White employees[1].

racism workplace diversity

Although it is proven that a diverse workforce performs better and is more profitable [2], this does not necessarily make a company immune to racism. So, a level of acknowledgement and awareness are just the beginning of what we can do to understand the ways in which racism in the workplace may affect Black people and indeed many other minority ethnic groups.

Racism and Health

Many of us are scared of COVID-19 – it’s a pandemic that has halted the world and had half of us held up in our homes, petrified of the outdoors, and the other half risking their lives to go to work on ‘the frontline’ every day. But COVID-19 can be racist. Or, rather, the ways in which Black people have been disproportionately exposed to it through their jobs can be racist. In a government report, they stated:

‘Some evidence also suggests the risk of death from COVID-19 is higher among people of BAME groups (15) and an ONS analysis showed that, when taking age into account, Black males were 4.2 times more likely to die from a COVID-19-related death than White males (16). The risk was also increased for people of Bangladeshi and Pakistani, Indian and Mixed ethnic groups. However, an analysis of over 10,000 patients with COVID-19 admitted to intensive care in UK hospitals suggests that, once age, sex, obesity and comorbidities are taken into account, there is no difference in the likelihood of being admitted to intensive care or of dying between ethnic groups (17).

‘The relationship between ethnicity and health is complex and likely to be the result of a combination of factors. Firstly, people of BAME communities are likely to be at increased risk of acquiring the infection. This is because BAME people are more likely to live in urban areas (18), in overcrowded households (19), in deprived areas (20), and have jobs that expose them to higher risk (21).’ [3]

While this is clearly very ‘complex’, as shown above, let’s focus on the issue of roles increasing risk.

One of my own family members is a deputy manager of a care home and she recently told me how the sole responsibility for going to the shops to buy supplies and food for the service users and residents was left to her at the height of COVID-19, essentially putting her at a higher risk of exposure. This duty and other high-risk activities, that were previously divided between all members of staff, are now undertaken by the only Black woman employee after several employees refused. This very clearly shows the disregard for Black lives and health that can be encountered in the workplace.

As HR professionals, when we look at the issue of jobs increasing COVID-19 risks for Black people, we need to really question if it’s just the job itself or if discrimination in the workplace is also playing a part. As in my example above, it’s crucial to ask if your organisation is affording your Black employees the same protection as everyone else. What we should be doing is evaluating the risks and ensuring there is a fair standard for everyone. You may assume that all staff members are being treated equally, but it won’t hurt to check if what’s happening in practice matches the high standards of equality that you’d expect from your workforce.

Black People in Employment

Take a look at your company. Who is in the top position? Who is in the managerial roles? What positions (if any) do your Black employees hold? According to a UK government report, only 85 of the 1,050 director positions in the FTSE 100 are held by people from ethnic minorities (2017).[4] More often than not, Black employees hold the lower-paid positions in a company despite their education and/or experience[5].

If we think of education and then employment as a production line, for most BME people, the conveyer belt to higher positions in a company has many hurdles and pitfalls. This is especially true when signifiers of Blackness slow down or halt the conveyor belt in terms of recruitment and hiring bias. In a report by Runneymede Trust, they said:

‘The fact that people with Asian or African sounding surnames have to send in twice as many CVs to get an interview is not an arbitrary or random inequality but is based on deep-seated, sometimes subconscious, views about their competencies and skills.’[6]

As an HR professional, you’ll no doubt be aware of these biases. What does your HR team and wider organisation do to mitigate against this form of discrimination? Have you explored training for unconscious bias, or adopting a policy of reviewing blind CVs?

Sadly, the conveyer belt continues to slow once Black people are actually employed, as career progression transparency is unclear, and promotions are few and far between.[7] If your HR team isn’t already involved in career planning for your business, diversity and inclusion are prime reasons why HR should be part of these conversations. Career planning can be used to detail the future opportunities for an employee within the organisation, and for monitoring employees’ performance and potential so when there is an opportunity to move up, Black employees are not overlooked.

‘Unprofessional’ Label

Assumptions and stereotypes about Black Identity are so deeply entrenched in our institutions: education, law enforcement, media industries, and society in general, that even our unconscious is said to create a bias. These biases have infiltrated workplace uniform policies, rejecting forms of Blackness, including hair. Despite the shift towards a society that is more accepting of many different forms of natural, culturally significant Black hairstyles, there are still several cases denoting Black natural hair as being ‘unprofessional’. [8]

There have been numerous macro-aggression cases of workplace dress codes that force Black people to unnaturally assimilate to a standard of professionalism created exclusively for Whiteness. They usually claim that afro hairstyles are distracting, a health and safety violation, unkempt or, even more pointlessly, that they don’t fit the aesthetic of the company.[9]

Clearly, if Black hair is not deemed as ‘smart’, then the definition of smart is discriminatory and must be redefined – we must ‘rip up the dress code’.[10] Project Embrace is one campaign that looks to redefine and reinterpret natural hair as professional by destigmatising locs, afros, braids and other forms of Black natural hair:

black natural hair dress code workplace

There is no short-term quick fix to racism in the workplace. There has been a lot of talk about being anti-racist in the media, however, anti-racism is not a self-proclamation, it is something that we, hopefully, are already actively working at for the foreseeable future. This is a collective effort from all sides that begins with knowledge and reflection, and is sustained through the implementation or continuation of change.

Steps to create an anti-racist workplace

Developing anti-racist strategies

No-one is asking for more than equal opportunity, and this means putting a little more effort into levelling the playing field for Black employees. Addressing equality must be done continuously and at all levels of an organisation. It requires commitment, clearer policies and more awareness to ensure systematic change. For more information, see:

Tackling Racism in the Workplace

Employers have a duty of care to their employees to make sure they are not at risk of being subjected to racism or any forms of discrimination in the workplace. Do your employees know who to talk to if they feel abused or discriminated against? What policies do you have in place to support their complaints?

Diversity and Inclusion Training

An observation of companies that may already have D&I training, is that it is usually voluntary. But, those who are the least likely to volunteer for training are the ones that probably need the training the most, as not seeing racism as an issue is an issue. Compulsory training is something to consider – we all have the potential to, even inadvertently, perpetuate racism, or to be impacted by it.

Ethnicity Pay Gap Reporting

Many organisations, including the CIPD, are petitioning for mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting, similar to Gender Pay Gap Reporting (see CIPD: Racism in the Workplace). Your company may wish to look into this regardless of whether it becomes mandatory, to gain clarity on any ethnicity pay gaps and to then investigate the biases behind them.

Support Mental Wellbeing of your BME Employees

Racism is traumatic and stressful. We cannot neglect to recognise how these traumas may lead to the detriment of mental health. You may wish to consider creating safe spaces for employees to talk about racial trauma, and/or offering counselling or therapy, to help support BME employees during turbulent periods caused by racial trauma.

Sarah Hawke author image

Sarah Hawke