A multi-country survey showed that six out of ten racial and ethnic minority employees have encountered racism during their career and about half of them are facing it in their current role. These employees say they are sidelined or overlooked for promotions and endure subtle jabs or disrespectful comments because of their race or background. Lucy Kallin writes that exclusionary practices stifle talent and leaders must confront workplace racism.
Stories from around the world uncover distressing daily occurrences in the workplace for people from marginalised ethnic and racial groups. A British-Bangladeshi woman labelled a terrorist because of her head scarf. A mixed-race woman in the United Kingdom having her complaints dismissed about a work environment where the expectation is that “the darker skinned you are, the harder you work”. An Indian-European woman in Australia forced to listen to co-workers mock an Indian accent in front of her, even when she speaks with an Australian accent.
In today’s workplace, these aren’t just stories, they are daily realities.
A new Catalyst report that surveyed over 5,000 employees from marginalised racial and ethnic groups in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States unveils some unsettling workplace truths. Out of every ten employees from marginalised racial and ethnic groups in your company, six or seven of them might have encountered racism during their career. What’s even more alarming is that about half of them are facing it right now, in their current role. This is what we find in the workplace globally today.
Racism manifests itself in many ways. It’s being sidelined or overlooked for promotions, enduring subtle jabs or blatantly disrespectful comments because of your race or background. It’s that constant whisper suggesting you don’t belong, your voice doesn’t matter, or you’re not leadership material. It’s the constant feeling of being a guest at a party but never being invited to dance. A feeling of not being fully accepted but no one ever sharing what’s so different about you.
According to the report, the most common expressions of racism are workplace harassment (48%) and employment and professional inequities (32 per cent). Now, here’s the kicker: 41 per cent of these incidents are instigated by leaders, the majority of whom are white and male. Leaders set the tone and culture of an organisation, but the study also finds that co-workers (36 per cent) and customers and clients (36 per cent) engage in racist acts, too. Four out of five acts of racism are instigated by White people, and one out of five are instigated by another non-White person. Women and men are equally likely to be instigators of racism.
“I got shamed because of how small my eyes are,” revealed a Chinese woman from New Zealand. These are not just stats. They’re harrowing accounts from real people that highlight a systemic issue that we, as leaders, need to address. The fact that you are naturally expected to turn the other cheek in line with ‘banter’ rather than your colleagues being responsible adults that educate themselves and work with the prejudices they display.
Furthermore, it’s not always about race. Sometimes, cultural insensitivity dovetails with religious prejudice. “Being Muslim, I have been excluded from parties at pubs since I don’t drink alcohol. The food given has included pork or non-halal meat. I seem like a freak for respecting my religious beliefs,” shared a Pakistani-Australian man. Stories like these resonate deeply, revealing that the issue isn’t just about colour but extends to deep-rooted cultural misunderstandings and biases.
Past Catalyst research finds that many people from marginalised racial and ethnic groups already pay an ‘emotional tax’ at work. This refers to the mental toll of being perpetually on guard, ready to defend against bias. It’s a weight that impacts their well-being and stifles their potential at work. When it declines, workers feel more included, engaged in their work and have less intent to leave organisations.
So, what’s our role here?
Firstly, it’s essential to understand that creating a workplace free of bias and discrimination isn’t just about having a diversity policy. It’s about cultivating a genuine culture of inclusion. As leaders, we must ensure our policies and practices are not merely performative but pave the way for tangible change.
Secondly, a culture of mutual respect and accountability is key to creating workplaces free from racism. We need to foster an environment where everyone, regardless of their background, feels safe to voice concerns without fearing retaliation. It’s upon us to establish robust reporting systems and ensure that every complaint is treated with the seriousness it deserves.
Lastly, it’s time to examine ourselves and our actions. Are we just passive observers, or are we part of the solution? The organisations we lead should reflect our values. We must challenge the status quo and champion a culture where everyone feels valued, respected and heard. Teams are at their best when they’re free from prejudice. Creating a psychologically safe workplace is fundamental.
It’s time to end exclusionary practices which are stifling the talent of people from marginalised racial and ethnic groups, and harming organisations in the process. So, I challenge you: are you ready to confront racism in the workplace and lead the charge towards a more inclusive future?
- This blog post represents the views of its author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
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