Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

How to Address Racial Bias and Discrimination in the Workplace

John Smith

February marks Black History Month across the United States and Canada – a whole twenty-eight days dedicated to recognizing the important figures and events in the history of the African diaspora.

At FDM, diversity and inclusion are at the core of our business. We take every day as an opportunity to celebrate our people and acknowledge their achievements. This month, we are likely to see a number of businesses do the same, organizing events to recognize black history and shine a spotlight on the African American communities within their teams.

However, within this, we may also see some businesses take part in performative acts of inclusivity. And while fun celebrations and appreciation for employees are certainly called for, these are all void if businesses are not addressing the real issues at hand – racial bias and discrimination in particular. As an equal opportunity employer and advocate for diversity and inclusion in the workplace, this is a subject we are extremely passionate about.

Despite being illegal under federal law, workplace racial discrimination is still prevalent across businesses, which includes systemic racism, unconscious racial bias and deliberate acts of prejudice. In fact, one in four Black and Hispanic workers in the U.S. report being subject to discrimination at work. Unfortunately, younger employees experience racial discrimination at work at a much higher rate than those above the age of 40. According to a report by McKinsey, 41.8% of businesses include diversity and inclusion principles and objectives within company policies; however, only 36.8% actually have accountabilities and responsibilities clearly defined.

Therefore, while many businesses already recognize its importance, this data suggests that there is still a lot more work to be done to support employees and implement effective diversity and inclusion initiatives. These initiatives will be crucial to combating racial bias and discrimination at work.

With the focus on Black History Month, we would like to take this as an opportunity to bring to light the pressing issue of racial bias and discrimination in the workplace. We encourage businesses to prioritize improving your own diversity and inclusion practices this month, and in the long-term. It’s important that you go further than ‘ticking a diversity box’, instead taking a proactive approach to truly understand your employees’ situation and provide effective solutions to improve job satisfaction and business performance.

What’s in this article?

What is racial bias and discrimination?

Racial bias refers to the assumptions and prejudices that are made towards someone because of their race, either unconsciously or on purpose. Racial discrimination refers to the mistreatment of an individual due to their race or favoring another individual as a result. At work, this could occur during the hiring process, assigning tasks and responsibilities, when awarding promotions and salary increases, or during employee dismissals.

Extreme cases of racial discrimination at work can be far more damaging for victims, including racially-driven harassment, abuse, and bullying. It can involve creating a hostile, intimidating or degrading work environment for someone, which is a form of direct discrimination.

What are unconscious racial bias and indirect racial discrimination?

Racial bias and discrimination are not always obvious within a business and can often be unconscious practices embedded into business culture, which are formed from social stereotypes and past life experiences. Unconscious bias is much more common than conscious bias, which can actually make it more difficult to address.

Racial discrimination laws in the workplace

In the U.S. and Canada, there are currently laws in place to prevent racial discrimination in the workplace. These laws state that employers are liable for acts of discrimination committed by their employees, as well as discriminatory acts from the business itself.

The Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects applicants and employees in the U.S. from discrimination based on race, skin color, religion, sex and national origin. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, race discrimination involves the mistreatment of an applicant or employee due to their race, or characteristics related to their race, including skin color, hair texture or facial features. However, it can also extend to mistreating an individual because of their affiliation with a person of a particular race, and can even occur between individuals of the same race.

The law applies to all forms of discrimination in any work scenario, such as hiring, dismissals, job delegation, promotions, and benefits. It also applies to harassment, which includes racial slurs, derogatory language or racist symbols.

In Canada, the Canadian Human Rights Act protects all employees from workplace discrimination, offering everyone the right to be treated fairly in all workplaces. Similar to the law in the U.S., the Canadian Human Rights Act covers discrimination due to race, in addition to other characteristics, like sex, marital status, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity.

In both countries, businesses that do not follow these laws may fall subject to legal implications, resulting in high legal fees, fines and pay-outs to victims.

What is the real impact of racial discrimination on businesses and their employees?

In addition to the legal impact of racial discrimination, there are a number of damaging ethical and business implications.

“As the Head of People for the US, it is important to create a workplace culture in which employees feel valued, respected, and can come to work as their authentic selves. We foster an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their ideas and diverse thinking is always welcome.”

Tricia Harvey, Head of People US, FDM Group

Damaging to our mental health

Racial microaggressions are any acts carried out towards another individual that aim to belittle, stereotype, or insult them, because of their race. Microaggressions can be more challenging to police than more overt and aggressive acts of discrimination, however, this does not make them any less damaging. Experiencing microaggressions regularly can result in an individual feeling undervalued and questioning their own worth. As a result, this can lead to the individual experiencing racial trauma, which can cause mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.

Breeding a toxic work culture

A business that tolerates racial discrimination is effectively enabling a toxic work culture for its employees, which is never a good thing. The key characteristics of a toxic workplace include little enthusiasm, low morale, unhealthy relationships and a lack of trust. A negative work environment contributes to a stressed and unproductive workforce, and is the leading reason for employees to resign, resulting in higher employee turnover.

Decreased job satisfaction

Similar to the effect racial discrimination can have on an individuals’ mental health and self-image, it can cause employees to become disengaged with their job and unmotivated. Without a doubt, this can have a direct impact on job satisfaction and job performance. There are multiple studies to support the theory that someone’s emotional well-being has a direct impact on their job performance, so this is certainly something to keep an eye on.

Decline in business performance

In cases where individuals are experiencing racial discrimination at work, they can often lose confidence in their skills and become reluctant to share ideas with peers. This can lead to reduced creativity and perspective within a business, and lower levels of productivity and innovation. Diverse teams have a lot to offer your teams, including a wide range of skills and experiences that can help drive high business performance.

Not to mention, two-thirds of consumers are likely to boycott a brand or business if they disagree with its social or political views, racial discrimination included. And they also believe that brands play a key part in addressing systemic racism. So, a business that does not tackle racial discrimination is more likely to lose customers and see a decline in business performance.

7 ways to tackle racial discrimination in the workplace

As a business, you have a legal and ethical obligation to tackle racial discrimination head on. There are a number of ways you can do this. Here is our actionable advice on how to address racial discrimination and unconscious bias at work:

1. Become self-aware

The first step to tackling unconscious bias is to become aware of your own unconscious opinions, as you can’t address a problem if you don’t know what it is exactly. Understanding our own implicit biases and unsupported assumptions might take some time and perspective, so it can be a good idea to discuss these matters with peers, or even take tests to identify the biases you may hold.

2. Pinpoint the problems at hand

After coming to terms with your own implicit bias, you are now ready to assess discrimination within your business. It is important to look at all aspects of your business to identify where racial bias and discrimination may be present, and understand where improvements need to be made. This could be in your job listings, recruitment processes, and promotions or benefit schemes, for instance. Another way to identify areas for improvement is to measure and track racial diversity within your business, which will also be helpful to measure the success of your diversity initiatives over time.

3. Gather first-hand insights

It is critical that you gather first-hand insights from your employees in order to really understand their experiences, and not to formulate your own ideas of what they may be going through. For example, it can be beneficial to create an anonymous survey to find out what your employees think you can do to improve, or pinpoint the specific areas of your business that need to be reevaluated.

4. Set a long-term strategy and make your plans public

Understanding the issues at hand is just the beginning. Next, you need to decide what action must be taken to address the problems. For instance, if your surveys or data collection reveal a lack of racial diversity in your talent pool, you should begin rolling out appropriate policies and practices to rectify this. Documenting your strategy and making this public will help you remain accountable and ensure your plans are executed.

5. Implement zero-tolerance policies

Once your strategy is in place, you will then need to implement your new policies and initiatives. When it comes to racial harassment, zero-tolerance policies are a must-have if you want to set the right example and demonstrate your commitment to becoming an ally for minority employees. It is imperative that you take all complaints seriously and escalate where necessary, so that all your employees feel valued and safe.

6. Change your existing processes

You’ll need to evaluate your existing processes across the organization to ensure they are fair to all. For example, what can you do to improve racial inclusivity in your recruitment processes, or how can you make your appraisal processes more impartial? There will be a number of quick actions you can take to improve your existing processes, such as using inclusive language, running events focused on inclusivity and creating opportunities for conversations around racial diversity and inclusion. Whereas, there will also be significant changes that may take longer to implement, or require additional resources.

7. Offer racial bias training

It is crucial to educate all employees on the importance of racial diversity and have the skills to recognize racism and the appropriate protocol to take. This is particularly important for leadership and managers who require the right tools to support all staff members, and understand how their unconscious bias may be impacting their teams. Racial bias training can be carried out internally, or there are numerous external training programs available.

It’s best practice to hire a HR professional or team to manage discrimination policies and complaints in your company.

“Focusing on DEI in the workplace is crucial to creating a safe environment where employees thrive and bring their best selves to work. This is something we focus on regularly at FDM Canada, we all succeed when diverse minds unite!”

Denyse Ahier, Head of People Canada, FDM Group

Looking forward

A proactive approach is key to becoming an anti-racist business that values its employees, provides equal opportunities, and celebrates everyone’s differences. Simply taking reactive measures is not enough. And although this February marks Black History Month, your efforts to overcome racial discrimination at work should not stop there.

If you’re not already, now’s the time to start your journey to creating a more inclusive work culture for the long-run, and tackle racial discrimination within your organization. Our seven tips to tackling racial discrimination in the workplace are the perfect place to start, but there is still so much more you can do.

At FDM, we are proud to be equal opportunity employers with diversity and inclusion ingrained into every part of what we do. Hiring diverse talent from all walks of life using our strength-based recruitment processes, we offer our clients access to the finest, diverse talent pool, brimming with different perspectives, skills, experiences, and personalities – the key to any successful team.

Check out the FDM consultant services to find out how we can help you build diverse teams and foster an inclusive work environment, or get in touch for more information.