Why we’re too afraid to report racism to HR

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A culture in which racism is allowed to slide and consequently reoccur is just as damaging as the abuse itself

Racist language and overt discrimination are no longer tolerated by the majority of people. Likewise we are increasingly aware of the underrepresentation of BAME (black, Asian 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 I recently conducted 55% of people have experienced racism in the workplace. To break this down more specifically, we are talking about 60% of black, 42% of Asian and 14% of white people.

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

If you 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 32% of people who have witnessed racism at work take no action. Only 17% 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 she 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. 37 per cent of white people confronted the perpetrator of a racist act, as opposed to 25% of Asian and 27% of black people. Likewise, 28% of white people took no action, as opposed to 36% of Asian people and 34% of black people.

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 issue.

We need to change 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 from an ethnic minority background. HR representatives and senior leaders 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 employees want to see racism in the workplace resolved. 31 per cent of people who have witnessed racism responded by confronting the perpetrator – nearly twice as many as those that reported it to HR. 62 per cent of those who challenged the perpetrator felt that the situation was resolved, as opposed to just 26% 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.

Binna Kandola is a senior partner and co-founder of business psychology firm Pearn Kandola

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