What to Do When People Deny the Existence of Racism in the Workplace

A recent survey from the Society for Human Resources Management revealed interesting findings: While nearly half of all Black Human Resources professionals believe there is racism in the workplace, just 13 percent of white HR professionals do. With that kind of disparity in beliefs, how do you approach creating a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable work environment?

The report also surveyed U.S. workers in general, not just HR professionals. Among white, non-HR workers, just 7 percent say that racism exists in their workplace. Among Black workers, 35 percent say the same. White HR professionals reported that gender discrimination was a problem in much higher numbers than racial discrimination, with 22 percent saying it exists in their workplace, according to a synthesis of the report on Refinery29.

First-person sharing can be a great antidote and reality check. With so much in the news about the effort to create more diversity and inclusion in all parts of society, including the workplace, roundtables on the topic throughout your company could be worthwhile.

You may feel that such discussions are tinderboxes waiting to explode, but just because you don’t directly address the concerns of employees about racism doesn’t mean they don’t exist. A good first step, before discussions commence, is to circulate a survey—with anonymity of respondents guaranteed—to all employees about perceptions of the company regarding equal opportunity, diversity, racism, and sexism. You may have never heard many of the thoughts that will be expressed in the survey, especially by Black and Hispanic employees—and women, too, possibly.

For example, there is a good chance that if your company is big enough, you will see comments about how white men tend to start the race for workplace progression far ahead of where minorities and women do. In other words, minorities and women have more to prove, while white men often start off with a greater presumption of competency and value. Case in point, in my own career, I have noticed that as a woman I have much more work to do to justify my position compared to the white men I have worked with. In one case, a white male colleague messed up royally—failing to deliver for half a dozen advertisers—and experienced no consequences at all for that failure. I joked with my mother that if it had been me (or a minority or another woman), I would have quickly been shown the door.

Once you receive the likely-to-be-startling comments from your employees about inequality in your workplace, organize mandatory small group meetings with no more than 10 per meeting, perhaps conducted within each department with an HR executive present. If you can afford the services of a specialized diversity consultant, so much the better to include him or her in the meetings, as well. Each discussion group should include men, women, and people from as many minority groups as possible. The medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan said, so it would be highly ironic and unproductive if these discussion groups only included people of one gender or race.

The discussions can start off with generalized observations, but then should progress to stories from the individuals in the group about inequality they have experienced themselves, either at your company or a previous company, so the other participants understand the forms racism and sexism in the workplace can take. To offset participant fear, you can give participants the option of not saying whether an incident occurred at your company or at a previous employer.

If there are disbelieving white participants, encourage them to ask questions of those who shared their experiences. Those questions may be revealed to be naïve after education from those who have experienced racism or sexism—i.e., “Why didn’t you just say something?” Those who are privileged often don’t realize how disempowering it is to not be privileged in that you are much less likely to be listened to and believed. There also is a fear that speaking up will result in punishment directed not toward the perpetrator of the racism or sexism, but toward the person making the complaint.

Hearing personal stories from colleagues who put voices behind survey findings can be exactly what a company’s executives and employees need to better understand persistent racism and inequality. It’s the first step to then working together to figure out what to do about it.

Does your company conduct diversity and inclusion surveys and hold discussion groups to review the results and strategize how to do better?

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