3 Signs Racism is Present in the Workplace (And How to Prevent it)


HR Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for HR pros

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The first step to tackling racism in the workplace is spotting it, but it can often be more subtle than expected. Here are three signs of workplace racism, and how to deal with them.

Article 8 Minutes
3 Signs Racism is Present in the Workplace (And How to Prevent it)

The Black Lives Matter movement has taken center stage recently, and for good reason, with protests occurring around the globe. However, while many businesses have been happy to give messages of support and commit to tackling racial prejudice at work, often these have been shown to be empty gestures. An Instagram survey from networking group Black and HR found that 77% of workplaces haven’t addressed problems faced by the black community.

One issue is that racism at work can be hard to spot. Much of what people of color have to deal with isn’t outright hostility - although that very much still exists - but smaller, more insidious instances of racial prejudice. For example, a study of black teenagers found they were assumed to be experts on their race an average of 2.5 times a week, and discouraged from achieving certain goals due to their race 3 times a week.

Dealing with racism is something members of the black community have to deal with every single day, and most employers will be keen to prevent this. However, that’s easier said than done. Organizations have to start with identifying signs of racism, then taking the appropriate action.

1. Microaggressions

Brande Martin, recounting her experience being a woman of color in the workplace, recalls being asked questions like “what are you doing here?” by white colleagues while attending important events. Each individual case of this is degrading, implying that it’s surprising to see a woman of color important enough to attend said events. However, on their own these questions might be seen as not that bad.

The problem is that incidents like this are almost never singular. These are known as microaggressions: brief but frequent incidents that contribute to a culture of prejudice towards minority groups. They can be thought of as similar to stubbing a toe; it happening once is unpleasant but manageable, but if it happened multiple times every single day, it would quickly become draining and unbearable.

Often these are not intended to cause offence or harm, and may be friendly, but this doesn’t lessen their impact, in fact they can be doubly problematic.

“Unfortunately, the burden of tackling microaggressions in the workplace falls on those they are directed against.” - Oluseyi Adesalu, medical education fellow at Health Education England and honorary research assistant at research department for medical education at UCL


Once microaggressions have been spotted, they can be difficult to tackle. White employees should do their best to call them out when they happen, as the perpetrator might not believe what they did was racist, and employers should be clear that this is no excuse.

Employers should make sure to foster an environment where microaggressions can be taken seriously. Dr Uché Blackstock, CEO and founder of Advancing Health Equity, recommends encouraging staff to speak up whenever they feel uncomfortable about a situation, no matter how small.

2. Dismissing complaints

When it comes to actively identifying racism in the workplace, many black employees find their complaints and experiences are dismissed, both by their peers and by those in positions of authority. This in itself is a sign of racism.

This can take several different forms. Sometimes, colleagues might genuinely not believe racism exists in the workplace. In the UK, this tends to be the case with older workers; just 12% of employees aged 55 and up believe they experienced or witnessed racism at work, compared to 42% of staff aged 18-34. This is despite the fact that levels of discrimination in the UK have remained unchanged since the 1960s.

Elsewhere, and more insidiously, racism is recognized but dismissed. In the US, 65% of black employees agree they have to work harder than other staff in order to advance in their careers. However, only 16% of white employees agree with this.

Similarly, 75% of white Canadians agree black people in the country are the subject of discrimination, but nearly 40% don’t understand the anger of black Canadians.

“A significant number of Canadians seem to expect that people who experience racism should not get too upset about it.” - Michael Adams, president of the Environics Institute, and Marva Wisdom, professional facilitator and director of community engagement and outreach for the Black Experience Project and a senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.


One of the biggest structures that allows racism to grow unchallenged is the idea that either it doesn’t exist or that it ‘isn’t that bad’. Dismissing the complaints or experiences of black employees massively contributes to a racist work environment. To avoid this, it’s necessary to have open conversations with your employees.

Discussions around workplace racism can be great opportunities to develop a workforce’s empathy. Asking white employees how they would feel if treated like a black employee, and having black employees share their experiences promotes an environment in which meaningful understanding can be achieved.

3. Homogenous hiring

A workplace that isn’t racially representative isn’t necessarily a racist one, but it’s not a good sign. At best, it’s a major impediment to fixing other issues to do with racial prejudice. It’s generally acknowledged that when it comes to racism at work, effective change has to come from the top down, and this is much harder if a business and its leaders are disproportionately white.

In businesses that employ few people of color, often the burden for fixing issues of systemic racism falls on those employees, adding extra workload and essentially asking them to fix other people’s mistakes. However, companies with diverse HR departments and leadership teams will be able to tackle these issues from the top down in a more effective way.

This issue starts at the hiring stage. Often, businesses end up hiring non-diverse workforces not because of active prejudice, but due to unconscious bias. The most common issue here is affinity bias, which causes people to unconsciously prefer people who are similar to them. This often leads to employers hiring people from the same race and background as them; something that is a major issue when only 3.2% of executives in the US are black.

Dealing with this starts with identifying and recognizing that unconscious bias exists, and spotting ways in which it affects the hiring process. For example, Microsoft had a system in which hiring managers could see each other’s feedback on a candidate before taking their turn to interview them, which allowed bias to fester. Removing this system allowed for opinions to be formed without influence from peers, making bias less likely.

The effects of racism on physical and mental health

When not tackled properly, racism can have wide-reaching effects on many elements of the workplace. From impacting the mental health of employees to reducing productivity, it’s an issue that mustn’t be overlooked to ensure you’re promoting the best possible work environment for all.

How does racism affect people physically?

Physical violence, the prevalence of infectious diseases and environments where minorities can’t thrive are all known to be consequences of racism. Being aware of these issues means not being able to separate them from any racist events in the workplace and therefore understanding the importance of tackling it for the welfare of everyone and a healthy society.

Increasingly, research is being carried out to better understand the links between the chronic stress of racism and its physical effects. It’s already accepted that racism can lead to the development and exacerbation of atherosclerosis, which is a precursor to serious heart disease.

Psychological effects of racism

Research into the impact of racism has found it’s twice as likely to affect mental health as it is physical health. While depression, stress, anxiety and suicidal thoughts are often more hidden from view than the seemingly tangible physical symptoms, the psychological effects of racism can be very serious and in some cases lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It doesn’t stop at actual instances of racism either, but also the fear of racism, which has been found to undermine those with strong mental health characteristics. Working in an environment with a perceived threat of racism can chip away at an employee’s sense of resilience, hope and motivation.

Why racism is bad for business

How racism affects the people who work for you is incredibly important, but eliminating it is also paramount to ensure it doesn’t negatively impact the business. Employees experiencing racism are less likely to be productive or find themselves in a position to let their creativity flourish and fulfill their potential.

Consumers are more aware of social and political issues than ever before and understand that purchasing products or services from a firm is akin to endorsing it. A report from Edelman showed that 64% of consumers across the world will make a decision to do business with or boycott a brand according to the beliefs it embodies. Therefore, companies can’t afford to ignore racism in the workplace, as this can lead to them facing a PR nightmare, loss of income and potential litigation.

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Join the conversation...

30/11/2020 Dave
Sales manager used the N word and A white employee heard him and now The employee is scared to come forward And now I feel very uncomfortable working here . What should I do ?
26/04/2021 Kamran Liaquat
Hi, I work for a company as a branch manager but I’m facing bullying by company director also facing racism from hr manager. What do I do to move forward because I love my job but these 2 individuals are bothering me and I’m going to have a nervous breakdown. What should I do?
20/06/2021 Donna M Sumler
Thank you for providing clarity on the subject matter and so eloquently putting into words the treatment I have experienced for years in the workplace. The mantra I have used to get me through years of microaggressions at work is this: GOOD BETTER BEST, NEVER LET IT REST, UNTIL YOUR GOOD IS BETTER AND YOUR BETTER IS BEST. I always had to be better in order to survive in the workplace and receive any recognition. After years of experiencing these microaggressions, I've become an expert at recognizing them. Calling out racism, no matter how subtle, must become the norm if we are to change our lives. There should be zero tolerance for racism, classism, sexism, ageism or any other discrimination in the workplace. Honestly examine your past actions, take inventory. If you are doing this to anyone, check yourself. Make an effort to do better by recognizing your own petty prejudices and strive to become a better person. For those of you experiencing it, KEEP YOUR HEAD UP!
04/10/2022 Anthony
I’ve been working for a construction company and they expect me to work machines I know how to run but company does not wanna increase my pay when I ask “4” white guy get over 20$ an hour n 2 Spanish people get 16$ an hour and when ask why can I get the same as 3 of the guys I got a no as an answer but they still want me to do the work that pays more then 20$ an hour …. What can I do ??