Credit: WOCinTech Chat

Racism at work isn't going away

We're uncomfortable about talking about race in the workplace, so issues are going unresolved.

by Rachel Savage
Last Updated: 01 Feb 2016

While fixing the issues holding women back in business has jumped right to the top of leaders’ to-do lists, tackling those surrounding ethnicity hasn’t gained as much traction. Yet racism at work hasn’t gone anyway.

Almost three in 10 (28%) of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) employees had experienced or witnessed racial harassment by a manager in the last five years, compared to 17% of white staff, according to a YouGov survey of more than 6,000 people. A quarter of Pakistanis had suffered it personally, the highest proportion.

Of those who reported managerial racism, 30% said it happened in the last year. That’s less than 10% overall, but given the pervasive, lasting impact of workplace discrimination that’s still far too high.

Indeed, the research may underestimate the scale of the problem. Business in the Community, who commissioned it, also threw the survey open to the public and a whopping 18,381 people responded. Of those, 45% of BAME and 20% of white employees said they’d seen or experienced racism from managers.

Self-selection means those responses could well be skewed and unrepresentative. More than 80% of public respondents worked for a large company, for example, versus 55% of those YouGov polled. But that should spur organisations to do more and better research – the problem is there, we just don’t know the true scale of it.

And there are plenty of other issues around ethnicity that need a dose of sunlight, that perennial ‘disinfectant’. Big companies, for example, should be concerned that 57% of black and 49% of Asian employees responding to the public BITC survey said their career progression had failed to live up to their expectations, versus 29% of white employees.

That’s not for lack of ambition either – 84% of BAME respondents to the open survey said it was important to them to progress in their career, compared to 64% of white ones.

But there are clearly barriers that need to be identified and fixed. Ethnic minorities are far more likely to be unemployed and there’s plenty of evidence that having a ‘black name’ means you’re less likely to be interviewed and hired. No wonder, then, that there are 62 all-white boards and only four non-white chief executives in the FTSE 100 (14% of the UK is black or from an ethnic minority background).

For starters, it would help to talk more about these problems. But only 37% of the YouGov respondents thought colleagues were comfortable talking about race at work, compared to 42% for gender and 44% for age.

Chuka Ummuna and Vince Cable have called for a similar approach to Lord Davies’ women on boards work. And increasing numbers of employers, from the civil service and the BBC to HSBC and Deloitte, are opting to hide applicants names in an effort to tackle that aforementioned unconscious racism during recruitment. But this is only the start.

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