Addressing Racial Bias and Discrimination in the Workplace

By Tomee Sojourner-Campbell, Development, Equity, and Anti-Racism Consultant

“When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed, but when we are silent we are still afraid, so it is better to speak.” – Audre Lorde

THIS HISTORICAL MOMENT

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, extraordinary events have swept the globe in response to the tragic deaths of African-Americans, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor. Diverse communities around the world are calling for the end to anti-Black racism, and for employers to actively address racial discrimination in the workplace.

In response, several large international corporations and organizations have issued statements opposing racial discrimination and anti-Black racism in support of Black communities. For example, John Donahoe, CEO of Nike, Inc. was quoted in the company’s public statement: 

Systemic racism and the events that have unfolded across America over the past few weeks serve as an urgent reminder of the continued change needed in our society. We know Black Lives Matter. We must educate ourselves more deeply on the issues faced by Black communities and understand the enormous suffering and senseless tragedy racial bigotry creates.” (Nike, Inc. https://news.nike.com/news/nike-commitment-to-black-community, June 5, 2020.)

For millions of North Americans, this historical moment moves us to act, break our silence, and state clearly: Black Lives Matter.

IMPLICATIONS FOR THE WORKPLACE

As a learning and development consultant, I work with businesses, organizations, and educational institutions to develop robust learning programs, and embed fresh strategies to address equity, inclusion, racial bias, and discrimination in their work environments. 

Over the past few weeks, my firm has received numerous requests for advice and training on anti-Black racism, anti-oppression, and organizational response plans. Impacted by global events, employers are seeking guidance on how to build inclusivity for their employees and clients.

To address workplace anti-Black racism successfully, employers and employees need to develop a shared understanding of what racial bias is, and how it impacts the workplace. Lasting change can only occur when each individual develops their ability to identify their own racial biases, and identifies how these biases manifest in their workplace and client relationships. 

What are racial biases?

Racial biases are conscious and unconscious prejudicial views, developed over time based on stereotypes, and often negative perceptions, about one or more racial groups. While race is the primary factor influencing these prejudicial views, these biases are also impacted by other intersecting identity markers, such as gender, age, gender identity, appearance, perceived socio-economic status, disability, nationality, ethnicity, and accent. 

What does racial bias and discrimination look like in the workplace?

Over the course of my 23-year career, Black, Indigenous, and racialized employees have shared their stories of marginalization and discrimination in the workplace. While these incidents have ranged from subtle to overt, they have all been painful and affected employee productivity. Some of the experiences of racial bias and discrimination in the workplace include the following:

  • A young Black education consultant is in a meeting with their older White training and development supervisor, and director discussing a proposed Black Employees Resource Group (“ERG”). The supervisor angrily comments that the ERG is “a way for Blacks to congregate, party, and waste funds.” At the time, the supervisor was one of the key decision makers in charge of determining which employee resource groups would be created and funded.
  • Black and racialized employees with equal qualifications, and in some cases more experience than their White colleagues, are passed over for promotions and high profile opportunities.
  • Black and racialized employees are excluded from informal networking events.
  • Black and racialized employees are exposed to microaggressions, including: inappropriate race-based sexual jokes, being called ‘girl’ or ‘boy,’ racial slurs, mimicking of mannerisms or accents “just for fun” during team meetings, training sessions, or in social settings in the workplace.
  • Black and racialized women are told to “fix their hair,” “make their hair more professional looking,” “lose the dreadlocks,” and other inappropriate comments about their physical appearance.
  • White colleagues and some racialized peers accuse Black employees of “playing the race card” when they raise issues about unfair treatment in their work environments.
  • During a lunch break, a racialized employee had sat down to eat, when a group of White colleagues walked by, waving their hands over their noses, and commented loudly, about “smelly ethnic food” while looking at their colleague.    
  • Off-hand remarks questioning a racialized colleague’s qualifications and arguing that they only got the job because of “affirmative action” or “to fill a quota.”
  • A Black female corrections officer finds a noose hung in her locker along with a note threatening physical harm.

Racial bias and systemic racial discrimination in the workplace takes a physical and psychological toll on Black and racialized employees. Employers must always be mindful that the impact is different for each employee based on their other social identities. For example, the experiences of a cis-gendered Black woman-identified employee will not be the same as a Black gender non-binary employee.

How do managers and employees identify racial biases in work environments?

The process to identify personal racial biases is difficult, and can be emotionally challenging. 

All employees should commit to a process of introspection. This process usually involves looking within, at who they are, their personal values, and what they have internalized about racial and ethnic groups, outside of their social identity groups, and within their groups. I have had to integrate a process of introspection over the course of my career. (There are online tools to assist folks in their learning about their racial biases. One interesting tool was created by Project Implicit.)

An employee who witnesses racial discrimination at work has an obligation to speak up and report an incident. In reality, it is often not easy. It is important for employees, when they can, to speak out in the moment, show support to the person who has been harmed, and follow-up on what can be done next. 

Managers have additional obligations. Beyond self-reflection, managers must actively enforce anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, and workplace safety policies. It is their legal and professional responsibility to do so.

What can companies do to address racial bias and racial discrimination in their workplaces?

Companies can begin the process or continue to root out racial discrimination, racism, anti-Black racism, and mitigate racial bias by developing multipronged organizational responses to workplace racial biases, including robust workplace anti-racism and anti-oppression strategies.  

Some of the strategies I have used successfully with my clients, include:

  • Hiring an external consultant with lived experience and extensive applied knowledge in the areas of critical race, anti-Black racism, anti-racism, anti-discrimination, and organizational development to assist in the design, development, implementation, and review of workplace anti-racism and anti-oppression strategies;
  • Conduct workplace policies and practices audits using an anti-racism and anti-oppression lens. It is important to examine recruitment, hiring, retention, promotion, job evaluation, and termination processes;
  • Develop long-term and well-resourced professional development learning programs for all employees and leadership; 
  • Provide on-site and virtual internal opportunities for youth and adults from underrepresented communities; and
  • Integrate discussions about how the company is addressing anti-Black racism and racial discrimination into team meetings, annual general meetings, and other work spaces.

Employers should also beware of comments and actions that, however well-meaning, will thwart efforts to address racial bias. I have unfortunately witnessed some tragic employer pitfalls. 

Employers should not:

  • Take a color blind approach. Professing not to “see color” undermines anti-racism strategies.
  • Deny the existence or pervasiveness of racism or suggest that racism should be a topic of debate.
  • Suggest that the mere belief that people should be treated the same way will eradicate racism.
  • Suggest that racialized individuals cannot be neutral and objective when discussing racism, but that White employees can.

THE TIME IS NOW

Addressing racial bias and racial discrimination in work environments is not an easy journey. For many of us, including myself, it is a challenge to look within, at our core beliefs, and to challenge our worldview. However, the time to act is NOW. As Audre Lorde implores us, we must remember that if “we are silent we are still afraid, so it is better to speak.”

And as we speak and listen, we begin to absorb the totality of the trauma and lifelong damage anti-Black racism, other forms of racism, and discrimination have on our colleagues, their families, and society as a whole. It is an overwhelming feeling. However, we can build connections to each other, in our workplaces, and beyond.

Companies should lead by example by investing time, financial resources, and energy into building work and business cultures that openly, willingly, and with professional integrity address anti-Black racism, and racial discrimination in their workplaces. 

Tomee Elizabeth Sojourner-Campbell is Managing Director of Tomee Sojourner Consulting Inc. She holds a Hotel and Restaurant Diploma (Algonquin College), a B.A. Honours in Directed Interdisciplinary Studies (Carleton University), an M.A. in Social Justice and Equity Studies (Brock University), and she is an LLM Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School (York University). Tomee brings over 20 years of professional experience to her advisory and learning program services. She specialized in assisting her clients, on-site and virtually, in areas of professional development, inclusion, intersectional forms of anti-Black racism, and organizational development. Her firm works with private and public sector clients in law, real estate, hospitality, restaurants, sports and entertainment, and retail.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission has recognized, Tomee as a subject matter expert in consumer racial profiling (CRP). She is also a national and international media commentator on CRP, inclusion, and corporate responses to anti-Black racism. Tomee can be reached on LinkedIn, Twitter and tomeesojourner.com.