Future of Work with Catalyst: It’s Up to Leaders to Stop Workplace Racism

by Joy Ohm

The US Supreme Court decision in June to reject affirmative action in college admissions was also a blow to corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in US companies. It’s now more important than ever to recognize that racism is a real and present issue in workplaces, not just in this country but across the globe.

Catalyst tackled this issue in our newest report, How Racism Shows Up at Work and the Antiracist Actions Your Organization Can Take. (LINK HERE) We surveyed more than 5,000 women, men, transgender, and nonbinary employees from six countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States) to ask about their experiences of racism in the workplace. What we found was distressing though, sadly, unsurprising: 66 percent of employees from marginalized racial and ethnic groups have experienced racism in the workplace, and half have experienced racism in their current job.

Sometimes, the racism described was obvious, but other times it was insidious, flying under the radar in the form of offhand comments or other exclusionary behaviors. Participants told us about everything from blatant harassment—such as racist jokes, slurs, and other derogatory comments—to degrading comments about their bodies or cultures, to assumptions about their intelligence, cleanliness, or language abilities. Some described being blamed for COVID-19. Others reported experiencing employment and professional inequities including pay gaps, being passed over for a promotion, or being assigned more or less work than coworkers because of their race.

We looked closely at who is most likely to be targeted with racism in the workplace. While women (51 percent) and men (50 percent) from marginalized groups experienced it to about the same degree, trans and nonbinary employees (69 percent) reported experiencing the most racism by a disheartening margin of nearly 20 percent.

These findings are certainly validating for employees of color and those from other marginalized groups who experience racism on a daily basis. But white colleagues may be surprised to learn just how pervasive this issue truly is.

A key reason for this is that whiteness is considered the norm at work—and though we often don’t realize it, employees, policies, strategies, and more are valued and assessed through a white lens. As a result, many characteristics inherent to the identities of people from marginalized racial and ethnic groups are devalued.

One of the most unsettling takeaways from the survey was just how often the culprits were those in positions of power. When respondents named the instigator of the racism they experienced, 41 percent of the time it was a leader in their organization. It’s important to note that leaders also dictate the culture that allows coworkers, customers, and clients to engage in racist acts.

The findings in this report show that it’s imperative that company leaders work to make systemic change to address racism and decenter whiteness from corporate culture.

Biases need to be identified and removed from hiring practices, promotion criteria, and company policies. People of color must feel safe to come forward when they experience racism in the workplace. And reported and observed incidents of racism need to be addressed at every level of an organization in order to create an environment of physical and psychological safety for all employees.

Recognizing all the different ways racism shows up at work is just the first step. DW

Diversity Woman is pleased to present a new ongoing column partnership with Catalyst, a global nonprofit promoting gender equity and workplace inclusion supported by many of the world’s most powerful CEOs and leading companies. Founded in 1962, Catalyst drives change with preeminent thought leadership, actionable solutions, and a galvanized community of multinational corporations to accelerate workplace equity—because progress for women is progress for everyone.

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