Would you report an act of racism in the workplace? Whether it be an incident that you happened to witness or one that you were personally the target of, would you have the confidence to tell someone about it?

Indeed, would you agree that racism is even a problem in the modern workplace?

It’s true that racist language and overt discrimination are no longer tolerated by the majority of people, to the extent that most cases of such behaviour will now make national headlines and face public outcry. Likewise, we are increasingly aware of the underrepresentation of BAME (black and minority ethnic) people in business and some organisations have publicly declared their intentions to balance the scales in this respect.

Yet, in a study* that I recently conducted, I found that more than half – 55 per cent, to be exact – of people have experienced racism in the workplace. To break this down more specifically, we are talking about 60 per cent of black, 42 per cent of Asian and 14 per cent of white people.

It seems clear, therefore, that racism is still very much an issue in our workplaces. But in such a tolerant, informed society, would you not surely assume that such incidents are reported, tackled and quickly resolved?

I return to my previous question; if it was you that witnessed such an incident, would you report it? And if so, who to?

In most organisations, your first port of call is likely to be the HR department. The champion of wellbeing and fairness in the workplace, ‘human resources’ is held up to employees as a constant source of support and guidance.

However, our research went on to find that a third (32 per cent) of people who have witnessed racism at work take no action. For two-fifths (39 per cent) of these individuals, the shocking reason that they cited wasn’t that they feared the consequences of doing so.

As a result, less than one-in-five (17 per cent) of those who have witnessed racism actually go on to report it to HR. Of those only half felt it had been dealt with effectively. One Asian woman I met recently told me that on reporting the unfair way she was being treated by her white female line manager was told, without the complaint being investigated, that the perceived ill-treatment was ‘all in your mind.’

These figures paint a troubling picture of racism in the modern workplace, and show that we aren’t talking about a state of ignorance, but one of fear.

A particularly interesting finding, was that white people appear to be less afraid of tackling racism when they encounter it than someone of an ethnic minority background. More than a third (37 per cent) of white people confronted the perpetrator of a racist act, as opposed to a quarter of Asian (25 per cent) and black people (27 per cent). Likewise, only a quarter (28 per cent) of white people took no action, as opposed to a third of Asian (36 per cent) and black people (34 per cent).

It’s reassuring to know that white people, as the demographic that is least likely to experience racism, won’t let an incident slide if they witness one. However, if the people tackling racism are the least likely to experience it themselves, the outcomes will never be entirely reflective of the true issue.

To truly solve this problem, we need to tackle the culture that allows racism and the fear of tackling it to exist. We must create psychologically safe working environments, where people feel that they can challenge racist behaviour without the risk of repercussions; particularly those of an ethnic minority background. HR representatives and senior staff must be clear and outspoken in their opposition to racism, setting an example that shows staff they will be supported if they speak out.

It’s also important for HR to understand how staff want to see racism in the workplace resolved. Nearly a third (31 per cent) of people who have witnessed racism responded by confronting the perpetrator – nearly twice as many people as those that reported it to HR. Three-in-five (62 per cent) of those who did so felt that the situation was resolved, as opposed to just a quarter (26 per cent) of those who spoke with the victim.

This is likely to be because confronting the perpetrator is a more resolute way of ensuring that they face consequences for their actions. HR departments need to therefore consider that, while many people are afraid to report racism, there is a desire to see justice done.

The bottom line is that a culture in which racism is allowed to slide and consequently reoccur, and where BAME people are afraid to challenge abuse, is just as damaging as the abuse itself. As such, workplace cultures need to change. Instances of racism need to be tackled head-on and very clear messages need to be sent by senior spokespeople that racism will not be tolerated, and that those who are brave enough to speak out will be supported.





Rebecca joined the HRreview editorial team in January 2016. After graduating from the University of Sheffield Hallam in 2013 with a BA in English Literature, Rebecca has spent five years working in print and online journalism in Manchester and London. In the past she has been part of the editorial teams at Sleeper and Dezeen and has founded her own arts collective.