The TUC last week published a report on racism in the workplace, which has indicated that two in five workers from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds have experienced racism at work in the last five years.
The report findings, which were drawn from a poll of 1,750 employed or former employed BME workers, found that the most common form of racial harassment was racist jokes or banter (27%), stereotyping based on appearance (26%), direct bullying (21%) and racist remarks made directly in the victim’s presence (21%).
Given that there are 3.9 million BME workers in the UK workforce, the TUC argues that hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of racist treatment and discrimination at work. However the report found that, of those who had experienced racial harassment at work, the vast majority failed to report it for fear of incidents not being taken seriously or having a negative impact on their work life. 19% of respondents voiced a concern that they would be treated worse by their employer if they were to report an incident of racial harassment.
According to the report, most incidents of racist behaviour came from colleagues, however in 17% of incidents reported, the perpetrator was a direct manager or someone else with direct authority. In 15% of cases the perpetrator was a customer, client or patient.
The report argues that, too often, racism is only seen as a problem when an individual incident is identified – such as when someone gets abused, or is treated differently, because of their race. However, what the report terms as ‘everyday racism’, which involves being a victim of racial comments and jokes – sometimes inexplicit jokes that have deep rooted undertones of racial stereotypes and prejudice – is also still prevalent.
The respondents cited examples such as being confused by their employers with other BME colleagues and having their names mispronounced and spelt incorrectly. The report argues that over time, these experiences build up and can lead to under-confidence, have detrimental impact on mental health and damage positive social relations at work.
However the report also uncovered evidence of discrimination consistent with what it calls “hidden” institutional racism. This included BME workers reporting having experienced unfair criticism at work, being given an unfair performance assessment, being unfairly disciplined, being subject to excessive surveillance or scrutiny, being denied promotions and being given harder or less popular work than white colleagues.
What TUC is calling for
The TUC says that urgent Government action is now needed to:
- ensure that employers have a duty to take action to prevent racism at work;
- improve workers’ rights, for example by banning zero hours contracts or introducing fair pay agreements;
- ensure that there are swift and effective penalties when workers experience racism;
- introduce mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting and a requirement to publish an action plan setting out how an employer will close their pay gap.
What can employers do
Racism in the workplace needs addressing to ensure workforces remain equal, empathetic and efficient. The TUC report found that, of workers who had experienced harassment at work in the last five years, 35% workers felt less confident at work as a result of the incident, 34% felt embarrassed and 31% found it damaging to their mental health.
The TUC report emphasises the importance of employer proactivity in promoting ethnical equality in the workplace. Not only is this beneficial to the productivity of workforces, especially when adjusting to new ways of working that have come about as a result of the pandemic, but also to companies’ reputations.
In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, many employers launched diversity and inclusion initiatives, and some respondents to the TUC report cited their employers as having launched strategies to tackle racism in the workplace, hosting diversity and inclusion events, having BME staff development programmes, having targets to tackle underrepresentation of BME staff and collecting race equality data. Other similar initiatives include facilitating a BME staff group or network, clearly stating that BME candidates are encouraged during recruitment processes, appointing a staff member as a ‘race champion’ and a written or verbal commitment from senior leadership to tackle race equality. It is important to maintain this momentum.
The TUC report found that, when workplace race equality actions are in place, around 30 – 40% of BME employees engaged with them, and that for each action the majority of employees feel that it had a positive impact on their experience of the workplace as a BME worker.
The report cautions against ‘tokenistic gestures’ and that work needs to be done to ensure that impactful initiatives, with input from BME staff and subsequent robust evaluation, are introduced.
This report, which comes off the back of similarly worrying research on ethnic wage differentials in the workplace (see our article here) continues to increase the pressure on the government to take more formal action to improve the experiences of BME workers.