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Tackling racism in the workplace

Sean Wharton, No Boundaries Training & Consultancy Co-Founder & Lead Facilitator
September 13, 2021

The last 18 months has been challenging to say the least as the world has grappled with Covid-19 and the shift in our behaviours. The period has also uncovered what many like me already knew, another virus ‘racism’ is very much alive in our society. The pandemic in the UK has seen Black and Asian communities in particular succumb to this dreadful virus and affected excessively compared to people of White ethnicity.

There are several factors that include Black and Asian communities are disproportionately affected by social-economic deprivation driven by the wider context in which structural racism can reinforce inequalities for example in housing, criminal justice system and employment, which in turn can have a negative impact on their health. The horrific murder of George Floyd opened the discussions around racism further and since then, we have seen the Black Lives Matter movement highlight the inequalities that exist across the world and in football, players continue to take the knee to demand greater racial equality in football and in their place of work. Racism is an everyday reality for those who are Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority. So why would this be any different in the workplace? The effect of workplace racism is systemic.

In the University of Manchester’s 2019 Racism at Work survey (1), 70% Black/Asian staff said they had experienced racial harassment at work during the previous five years, and 60% felt their employer had unfairly treated them due to their race. Over 40% of those who reported a racist incident said they were either ignored, or that they had subsequently been identified as a ‘troublemaker’. Moreover, more than one-in-ten respondents raising a complaint said that they were subsequently disciplined or forced out of their job as a result of doing so.

With more and more organisations trying to improve workplace diversity, eliminating racism at work should be one of the first actions that must be taken. Racial discrimination in the workplace is illegal under the Equality Act 2010 (previous complaints were covered by the Race Relations Act 1976), so tackling it is both a legal and ethical necessity in the UK.

Furthermore, Business in the Community’s 2020 Race at Work Black Voices Report (2) shows that while 14% of the UK’s population is non-white (and 3.3% are Black):

• 30 out of the UK’s 2,796 judges are Black

• 224 headteachers out of 16,800 are Black

• Less than 1% of academics and journalists are Black

• Just 1.4% of FTSE 100 CEOs, Chairs or CFOs are Black

Tackling workplace racism

These factors result in differing levels of wealth between ethnicities. ONS statistics (3) show that, for the period April 2016 to March 2018, median white British wealth was £313,900, compared to £65,600 for Bangladeshi people, and £34,300 for Black African people – less than 10p for every £1 of white British wealth. Tackling racial discrimination at work isn’t just an ethical issue, it offers benefits for businesses too. The 2017 McGregor-Smith Review found that full representation of Black or Asian people in the labour market would increase the size of the economy of the UK by £24 billion, or 1.3% of GDP. And research by McKinsey found that ethnically diverse companies were 35% more likely to outperform (4) non-diverse ones.

We all have biases and this plays a significant factor in decision making and making assumptions about other people based on racial stereotypes. No Boundaries Race Awareness sessions covers unconscious bias and how these views are formed and in turn, how this can affect treatment of some groups of staff. Our training raises the awareness of subtle forms of racism, microaggressions and workplace banter. The sessions open up difficult conversations in a safe space and through frank and honest discussions, these sessions can support employers understand what changes if any, they could make to become a more inclusive employer.

Organisations must work towards building a culture of inclusion, in which people can challenge one another on racism without fear; It’s crucial that you ensure all staff are knowledgeable and skilled in recognising and tackling racism.

The issue is not just one of talking about race but creating safe enough climates where those who have been discriminated against feel that they can speak up without fear of recrimination and that they will be listened to. We therefore need to promote discussion of racism with individuals who have experienced it first-hand, these are the people with the richest insight into how an organisation’s culture may be fostering a racist environment. Organisations can make open discussion a habit through setting up regular minority discussion groups. The topic of racism is not a new one, but with the pandemic and the widespread protests across the world demanding equality and justice after the death of George Floyd in the United States, it has brought forward conversations within many of our homes about how we address such inequalities around race. Let us acknowledge that racism exists in the workplace and be honest about how we can begin to fix the problem and find the cure for this terrible virus that affects so many.


(1) University of Manchester’s 2019 Racism at work survey

(2) BITC 2020 Race at Work Black Voices Report

(3) ONS statistics - Differing levels of wealth between ethnicities (4) The 2017 McGregor-Smith Review


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