Tackling Racial Discrimination in the Workplace


Racism is a Pandemic

Events throughout 2020 have brought energy and focus to the issue of racism, racial equality and racial equity. Countless companies that haven’t addressed racism publicly in the past, have spoken out to ensure that their employees, consumers and partners have clarity on the action being taken within their organizations. 

The Harvard Business Review states, “achieving racial equity in the workplace will be one of the most important issues that companies will tackle in the coming decade.” 

In addition to doing the right thing and creating a positive culture in your organization, there are considerable tangible business benefits for a company which successfully embraces diversity, including more innovation, improved levels of talent and even higher revenue.

As a foundation, it is important to level-set by revisiting and understanding how widely race discrimination in the workplace is interpreted in the regulations, which are covered by several laws including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964. Title VII protects individuals against employment discrimination on the basis of race and color, as well as national origin, sex or religion.

Race discrimination constitutes any unfavorable treatment against a job applicant or employee because of his or her race or race-related characteristics, which includes skin tone, hair texture and facial features. Race and color discrimination can also apply to someone treated unfavorably because they are married to, or associated with, a person of a certain race or color.

Discrimination can occur when the victim and the person who inflicted the discrimination are of the same race or color. 

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recommends these steps for employers to lower the risk of race discrimination: 

  • Build a culture that respects cultural and racial differences.
  • As a leader, be professional in conduct and speech, demonstrate your own respect for differences.
  • Refuse to initiate, participate in or condone discrimination and harassment.
  • Avoid race-based or culturally offensive humor or pranks.
  • Provide training, including specialized coaching for HR officers and senior executives.
  • Once your employees have been trained, hold them accountable for upholding the organization’s policy.
  • Establish neutral and objective criteria of recruitment, hiring and promotions, to avoid subjective decisions based on personal stereotypes or hidden biases.
  • Be proactive. Encourage employees to report incidents of inappropriate, discriminatory, harassing or abusive behavior to their supervisors, HR and management.
  • Foster open communications and early dispute resolution.

This last point, about responding quickly and effectively to complaints, is crucial. That is a litmus test for many about how seriously you are addressing the issue.

There are several guides to best practices in handling complaints, including this one with advice from several experts, including the EEOC, identifies core ideas in effectively responding to complaints of race discrimination or harassment:

  • Recognize that complaints of racial discrimination are deeply offensive and emotional for the complaining party. Therefore, every complaint must be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly.
  • Promptly document the complaint.
  • Meet and interview both parties.
  • Ensure the complaining party feels safe and comfortable, especially if they must go back to work with the alleged harasser.
  • If the employee does not feel safe, explore other options such as moving the complaining party to a new location or role.
  • Pay attention to the nature, severity and frequency of the complaints.
  • Employees who make complaints must be protected. They should receive safeguards that they have not put their job, salary or benefits in jeopardy. To not do so, risks an action for retaliation.

We will return to the topic of preventing racial discrimination in the workplace in our next blog when we will look more deeply at the factors which put you at risk for race discrimination in your organization; guidelines for effective training; recommendations for recruitment, hiring and promotion policies and how you can support the mental and emotional health of your team as they face challenges they cannot avoid.  

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