5 steps to combat racism in your workplace [Checklist]

20 May 2016 -


Racism is a serious issue that needs to be treated appropriately. Here, Insights looks at steps you can take if racism rears its ugly head in your workplace

Jermaine Haughton

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has faced a severe test of his leadership in the past month, as the party reportedly suspended up to 50 of its members, including former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, over allegations of anti-Semitic and racist comments.

Racist incidents in the workplace are unpleasant and sadly not uncommon, but there is a growing body of advice on how managers should deal with a racist allegation at work.

Whether it be a dismissive attitude towards certain individuals, an ill-judged joke or, even, physical altercations, any employer should respond swiftly to signs of racism in the workplace.

The consequences of inaction can be fatal to a company’s reputation. Even in cases where accusations of racial discrimination are unfounded and untrue, an organisation can still face a backlash.

“There’s no smoke without fire,” people will say. Fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show in the US to explain that accusations in the mid-1990s that his brand was discriminatory against black people were false and spread by a fake and malicious email. The allegations had initially led some black customers to boycott the brand.

Backed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, anti-discrimination legislation in the UK makes it unlawful to discriminate both during the recruitment process and after appointment.

The legislation provides individuals who feel that they have experienced discrimination with the right to complain to an Employment Tribunal.

A Manchester tribunal once ruled that an employer who promoted an employee to a newly created post without advertising the vacancy, with the result that no-one was given the opportunity to apply, had unlawfully discriminated against a black employee who would have applied for the post if they had known about it.

Incidences of racial discrimination can occur regardless of the size of the employer. Companies as large as British fashion brand and retailer Alexander McQueen and airline British Airways, just to name a few, have received lawsuits for racial discrimination in the past.

As well as reputational damage, managers who fail to react appropriately to racism complaints can negatively affect the health of victims. Research has shown that racism can have a short- and long-term impact on a person’s physical and mental health and wellbeing. Discrimination has been shown to increase the risk of stress, depression, the common cold, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, and mortality.

Racism in the workplace is often not overt, and it can be difficult for managers to disentangle what’s been going on. Sometimes the person accused of the racism may not even really know that they are making racist comments or making the other person uncomfortable or upset.

Managers must, therefore, make sure that they’re seen to be open communicators, as well as administering a robust and visible policy and code of conduct. They should hold regular culture and discrimination training to teach staff how to unload unconscious biases.

Here are five tips to help you handle any racism issues in your workplace.

Promptly Investigate

Manager’s should start by taking an employee’s complaint of discrimination seriously by reassuring them that their allegations have been listened to and recorded, and by starting the process of investigation as soon as possible.

Coming forward with such complaints can be hard for many victims, as they may be concerned with the possible consequences and potential stigma, but bosses can calm their fears and encourage a more open form of discourse by ensuring accusations are taken seriously.

Your organisation becomes more vulnerable to legal action by employees when racist comments go unrecognised by management.

Be Willing To Apologise

Dependent on the nature of the racial discrimination, some employees may be satisfied with a reasonable explanation or an apology from the accused, and the employer. That informs the employer of the gravity of the offense and how it ought to respond.

Apologising may not relieve companies of their liability for discrimination lawsuits, but can show the company’s seriousness in resolving the issue, especially when employees' behaviour is not know about by the company.

Royal Mail wrote a letter of apology to an Indian man who was subject to racist abuse from one of its employees in Bangor, Northern Ireland. In a letter to the man's partner, a customer service adviser for Royal Mail told her he was "very sorry" to hear of her "recent experience with one of our colleagues".

The letter continued: "I have passed the details of your complaint onto the relevant manager to action accordingly. Please be assured that we take our customers feeling let down seriously and will use this information to make further improvements."

Interview All Relevant Witnesses

Managers leading the investigation will need to take time to draw up a list of employees who can help shed light on the facts regarding the racism accusations. Managers should prepare questions and must also keep an ordered record of witness statements and outcomes from meetings, to ensure that all relevant issues are covered and the accounts of the incident(s) can be relied upon in a court of law.

At the University of Greenwich, for example, their bullying and harassment policy for staff and students, outlines that an investigating manager, who does not have line management or responsibility for any involved party, will follow the process of interviewing the complainant, the alleged harasser, any witnesses, consider any evidential material provided, and repeat those steps as oftenas necessary to reach a conclusion, generally within 20 working days.

Then the investigating officer is required to compile a report of his/her findings, and recommendations, and give it back to their bosses for a final judgement to be made.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Managers have a duty to treat the accused as fairly as the victim during the internal investigation. Until an allegation is proven correct, managers should refrain from passing judgment until all of the evidence is in and assessed.

While employers have a duty to rigorously probe racism claims, managers must maintain their neutrality and keep an open mind during proceedings, allowing the accused to make a statement defending their own position.

Report Conclusion To Both Parties

Once the investigation has been completed and the employer has made a decision on their intended punishment, or not, of the accused, the appropriate manager should meet with the person(s) to explain the results of the investigation and confirm it in writing.

The manager should affirm that retaliation is prohibited, and clearly state options if the outcome of the investigation is disputed. Then, the manager should meet with the complainant to confirm their agreement with the outcome, also in writing, and provide guidance on what the victim should do if he/she experiences retaliation.

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