7 People strategies for tackling systemic racism in the workplace

Guest Author
Published on 24th September 2020
4 min read

As Black Lives Matter protests have rocked the globe in recent months, it’s become increasingly clear: systemic racism is still embedded in society, including the world of work.

Shockingly, just 1 in 16 of top management positions are held by black and minority ethnic individuals.

We look at what HR and People leaders can do to start to eradicate systemic racism from their workplace.

What is systemic racism?

Systemic racism is a form of racism that’s embedded within society or organization as a standard or accepted practice. It transcends individual attitudes and perpetuates discrimination in virtually every arena of life.

Systemic racism has been around for hundreds of years. However, since the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s left many people questioning the role they can play in eradicating racism in all forms, once and for all.

It’s put a spotlight on ‘anti-racism’, a form of action against racism that plays a key role in how individuals and organizations can tackle systemic racism.

The scale of systemic racism in the world of work

Systemic racism isn’t just a problem in the US but worldwide. It permeates every part of society, including the workplace. For example:

  • Black Americans, native Americans and latinx individuals experience higher unemployment rates: When the unemployment rate was 3.6%, the black unemployment rate was 6%, for example.
  • Pay for BAME employees is considerably lower compared to white workers: The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that while the median pay for white male workers was $1,128 per week, it was $891 per week for black male workers, and $796 for latino male workers.
  • Pay for BAME women is even lower: Black Women’s Equal Pay Day was on August 13 2020. It represents how much farther into the calendar year the average black woman must work to make the same amount that her white male counterpart made the previous year. It means that, at present, black women aren’t paid for roughly one-third of the year in comparison.

These examples of systemic racism in the workplace are just the tip of the iceberg. However, HR teams have a vital role in tackling systemic racism in the workplace, and these seven strategies will start organizations on the right path.

1. Implement wide-scale organizational training

While strides have been made, still many people have yet to accept that systemic racism exists, and even those that do often fail to understand how it functions as a part of their day-to-day life.

Trainings that cover anti-racism, systemic racism, unconscious biases, and inclusion are all an excellent way to begin building the understanding that’s critical to change.

Employees at every level should attend training. While employees may not be able to shift policies, they can examine their daily practices, behaviors, and biases, to become more aware of them and therefore have the power to do something about it.

 2. Create top-down accountability metrics

The CEO or CPO should express to their organization precisely what they’re doing to address inequalities. However, statements alone are not enough, simply the first step to accountability.

These initiatives should be accompanied by metrics that should be measured in an ongoing capacity. For example, some organizations publish quarterly or annual reports documenting their pay equity outcomes by race and gender, and their diversity metrics.

By looking at the numbers, HR and People leaders can understand more about the makeup of their workforce and provide insight into actionable next steps.

3. Identify anti-racism and inclusion as priority areas

If resolving inequality is a priority, there should be a corresponding role or department to manage it.

Hiring a Chief Diversity Officer, or a Diversity and Inclusion Specialist can be one way to do this. These roles can also manage or partner with HR to develop early-career initiatives such as diverse recruitment strategies.

It’s essential to do more than just create a role; that role or department must be empowered to create authentic, tangible change.

4. Get feedback from your employees

Inclusion’s a critical but often missed part of diversity initiatives.

If diversity refers to the metrics and presence of minorities at an organization, inclusion describes how welcomed they feel.

As a researcher from the Harvard Business Review frames it: “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

If your employees are facing hostility, bias, microaggressions, harassment or other issues in your organization, it’s critical for HR to address it, and that feedback won’t be obtained through a diversity metric alone.

5. Create and reinforce anti-racism policies

Define, share and reinforce zero-tolerance policies. Employees at all levels should be held accountable, including executive teams.

The consequences of racism and discrimination should be clear, and the methods of reporting any incidents particularly in policies should be widely shared and distributed.

Employees speaking up can be fearful of retaliation, so your policies should protect them from this threat and make sure they won’t be penalized for reporting misbehavior.

6. Recognize and celebrate diversity

Build a more inclusive environment by actively championing and celebrating diversity.

This can include recognizing events that raise awareness of BAME, such as Black History Month and Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and by recognizing holidays that may not be nationally recognized but are culturally relevant to BAME individuals.

7. HR must lead by example

Ultimately, HR and People teams should lead by example and make sure that you have diversity within HR itself which can be a common blind spot.

Even the most well-intentioned HR teams are susceptible to their own biases, which can cause them to downplay a microaggression, or fail to understand the impact of a racialized event.

Therefore, HR leaders should consider everything from the way they hire their own talent, to the employee experiences they provide.

By showing that your team understand, respond and learn, then it’ll encourage the rest of the organization to do the same.

What’s next?

While there’s certainly a long way to go in tackling systemic racism, HR and People teams are uniquely positioned to be able to make great strides in how organizations can root out racism for good.

However, in order to make any real progress, all employees and leaders must play their part. By doing so, and by HR supporting, it means that you can provide all employees with the most fundamental of employee experiences, equality.

As Michelle Obama said, “It’s up to all of us – Black, white, everyone – no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out. It starts with self-examination and listening to those whose lives are different from our own.”

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