How to deal with racism in the workplace

How to deal with racism in the workplace

The topic of racial discrimination still poses a challenge in organisational workplaces to date. Several studies have shown the devastating health and economic consequences of racism and its damaging impacts on a country’s social cohesion.

Don't avoid talking about racism

Talking about racism can be difficult. When it comes down to speaking about racism and race, organisations have been known to not discuss it until they are faced with an incident within the organisation, for example, a slanderous comment made by one person to another.

This reluctance is echoed throughout the organisation, and its impacts are often seen with middle managers too. From dancing around serious conversations to straight up avoiding any talks about race, managers in these organisations aren’t equipped to have an honest conversation around race or what to do when topics around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) need to be discussed. As a result, DEI initiatives, plans and approaches often sit within certain groups with a DEI focus or within the C-suite executives, and never truly get integrated within the culture of an organisation.

With an increased focus on improving the quality of workplaces in recent years, DEI topics have taken a greater centre stage in many companies, as improving DEI metrics have shown to improve employee engagement. As such, companies have put more focus on talking about DEI topics, including racism in the workplace. To eradicate any taboo or systemic barriers built around conversations of racism, leaders should inspire managers and employees within an organisation to have productive conversations amongst themselves to improve the culture of a workplace.

A RACE framework for employees

Professor Stephanie Creary offers a framework for middle managers to guide them through initiating conversations about race in the workplace. After all, DEI frameworks should not only be created and tailored to executives when the impact of DEI concerns affects the entire organisation. In her framework, Professor Creary details the acronym RACE as the following:

  • R: Reduce anxiety by talking about race anyway.
  • A: Accept that anything related to race is either going to be visible or invisible.
  • C: Call on internal and external allies for help.
  • E: Expect that you will need to provide some “answers,” practical tools, skill-based frameworks, etc.

LinkedIn survey

I did a recent survey on LinkedIn to understand how employees, ranging from C-suite to middle managers, in a varied number of industries felt about talking about race. I found that a significant number felt comfortable talking about race in the workplace.

It was interesting to note, however, that about one out of four people felt somewhat uncomfortable talking about race in the workplace. In comments received by survey participants, some commented that while they were comfortable speaking about race in the workplace, they were only comfortable speaking about topics related to racism that were more widely spoken about and addressed, like systemic racism, compared to one-on-one conversations about racial biases.

Another survey participant stated that the discomfort of speaking about race at the workplace stems from being seen as too “emotional” and that she is selective about who and when she shares the conversation with. A senior manager who commented on the survey stated that due to race being brought up in an accusing manner towards white employees in the workplace, it has caused her to rely on engaging with conversations about race with only a limited few.

It needs to be acknowledged that it is a step in the right direction for organisations to review and add DEI policies into a company’s overall policies. Indeed, there is much work to do to unlearn any form of negative connotation or fears attached to conversing about race and work towards creating a constructive and safe space to have such conversations in the workplace, without blaming a group of people or victimising another.

Such frameworks, as written by Professor Creary, can help in guiding these conversations to create more safe spaces to discuss topics relating to race and other previously labelled “taboo” topics in the DEI umbrella. This helps to build a more cohesive and inclusive workforce.

Improving the workplace

While organisations can provide thought-provoking frameworks and tools to help employees, there’s much work to do on a personal level, too. Reflecting on our habits and our preconceived notions of others at work is something we must do regularly to ensure that we can contribute to an inclusive and thriving workplace.

Additionally, we need to personally challenge any preconceived notions we have built around the race of our colleagues and interact with them with an open mind, to really listen to their ideas and recognise their contributions. This will in turn build a more engaged workplace and lead to improvement in any performance metrics that the company sets out to achieve.

A sensitive and mature approach to discussing racism strengthens organisational culture and makes an organisation better prepared to handle racist incidents if, or when, they happen. For the development of more advanced racial awareness in your organisation, there are many approaches that can be used, including engaging with a facilitator to run a workshop, town halls and regular email communications from senior leaders. The more engaging the sessions, the more effective the outcome will likely be in encouraging a discussion and improving workplace outcomes.

Learn more about DEI

Another way to engage employees in your company is through a DEI workshop. In a workshop, employees can learn more about the DEI principles and learn how to approach these matters in the workplace more effectively.

You can also attend a DEI conference which, like a workshop, covers the key concepts and trends with a high level of engagement. Plus, there is also an added advantage of networking with experts and keynote speakers in the field. This can provide answers to questions pertaining to DEI matters in an effective and collaborative manner, fostering further engagement and inclusion.

Vivian Acquah


Vivian Acquah

Passionate and driven, Vivian Acquah CDE® is making an impact on the world of workplace wellness and DEI. As Certified DEI Trainer/Consultant, Vivian is devoted to making the topics of...

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