The importance of anti-racism in the workplace
19 January 2021
In this article Seema Mitra explores the importance of anti-racism in the workplace.
Good riddance to 2020 – a lot of us will have seen or heard that message in the final days of last year. And for the most part it’s hard to disagree. But with that instinctive eagerness to see the back of a difficult year we need to ensure that one good thing is not swept away, and that’s the rise and rise of discussions about anti-racism and allyship in wider society and in the workplace.
None of us will forget this came from a place of absolute tragedy: the brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, USA in May 2020. But what followed was more than anger and shock. In the weeks after, the Black Lives Matter Movement saw support increase exponentially with global protests. In the UK the thirst for wanting to understand more about black peoples’ experiences was palpable. In June Reni Eddo-Lodge made history by becoming the first ever black British author to top the paperback non-fiction chart with her book “Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People about Race” and Bernadine Evaristo became the first black woman to top the paperback fiction chart with her novel “Girl, Woman, Other” about the experiences of black women in Britain. These books were not new (Eddo-Lodge’s book was published in 2017, Evaristo’s won the Booker Prize in 2019), but racism became a mainstream subject overnight. Social media platforms were inundated with celebrities talking about their white privilege, statues were pulled down, institutions were questioned for their links with slavery, and programmes were disowned by the BBC and Netflix for racial insensitivities that in some cases were only a few years old.
In this milestone moment corporations openly stood in solidarity with the movement for racial equality. Huge donations were pledged to this cause, some introduced initiatives like Black Employee Forums and the world was told, through what seemed at times, like a megaphone, that black colleagues and customers would be supported; silence was no longer an option.
In this new world then, employees, not all of whom are of ethnic minorities, have expectations. Because if you say that you are going to be a workplace where employees of ethnic minorities feel as valued as all members of staff, then practices need to be in place to ensure that is happening. And if you’re not saying it, why not? Disregarding for a moment the basic moral arguments, the bottom line statistics are clear – the global Management Consultants McKinsey in their 2020 report continue to make a compelling business case for diversity. Their analysis shows that companies in the top quartile of ethnic diversity on executive teams were 36 per cent more likely to have above average profitability compared to those in the fourth quartile (Diversity Wins, 2020). There is, what they call, a “performance penalty” for those companies that are yet to embrace diversity.
There is also the employer’s legal responsibility to consider. Claims related to sexual harassment reportedly doubled in the wake of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein. The #MeToo Movement created an environment that encouraged women to come forward. The current conversations about racial equality may well have the same effect in terms of claims for racial harassment, and employers need to think, not just about active race discrimination that might be happening in the workplace but the kinds of behaviours that make people feel that they are in the out-group.
Anti-racism and Allyship training is a tool that many employers are turning to. Interactive sessions do a lot more than explain what microaggressions are or describe the difference between being non-racist and anti-racist. The 22-carat gold effect of skilled facilitated training, as I’ve seen for myself on many occasions in 2020, is that these sessions create an atmosphere where ethnic minority employees talk openly about their experiences at work. This is particularly valuable when employees of a team complete the training together. “People here have asked me if they can touch my hair,” one black employee announced to her team members on a zoom training session. “I’ve been mixed up with another employee who’s the same background, and I know they don’t mean it, but…” another employee has said. These conversations can be uncomfortable, but such open dialogue promotes a workplace where employees feel united as a team and visible as individuals. “I didn’t realise I’d said that; I’m sorry,” one employee said when picked up by one of their team members for using a term whose offensiveness they hadn’t really considered. When the employer puts this at the top of their agenda they are saying to all their employees, we will continue this conversation into 2021, because silence is no longer an option.
If you would like to have a conversation with Lewis Silkin about how we can support you, please contact our training team at ILoveTraining@LewisSilkin.com or your usual Lewis Silkin contact.