Discrimination Analysis

Business leaders must step up to stamp out workplace racism

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Research indicates one in five people living in Australia has been a target of racism (Image by M. Nilov | Pexels)

Racial discrimination remains a huge problem in Australian workplaces — it affects employees' stress, health and performance, making them likely to leave for other work. Businesses not addressing this problem will be left behind.

Even though racial discrimination is illegal, statistics suggest Australian businesses still have a problem. They need to be prepared to call it out while also upping their investment in cultural awareness training.

A report by the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute in 2021, revealed one in five people living in Australia was a target of racial discrimination — that’s over four million people.

Reconciliation and allyship experts Carla Rogers and Aunty Munya Andrews, co-directors of Evolve Communities, believe education is the key to reducing workplace racial discrimination and the reason cultural insensitivity still occurs is that people lack knowledge.

Carla Rogers tells Independent Australia:

'There is greater importance on offering diversity education in the workplace because Australians haven’t necessarily received any cultural awareness or sensitivity training at school.'

As regards employment, Ms Rogers warns:

'Workplaces that lack cultural sensitivity will find it difficult to retain and inspire employees from diverse backgrounds.'

Two years ago, a report by Diversity Council Australia and the University of Technology Sydney's Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research (UTSrevealed that 28% of respondents said they worked in culturally unsafe workplaces. Other reports include 44% hearing racial slurs in the workplace and 59% said they had encountered "appearance racism" about the way they look.

A Diversity Council Australia report released in March this year found that 43% of non-white Australian employees regularly experienced racism in their workplace.

One of the biggest challenges facing organisations today is a lack of engagement and high employee attrition. Many businesses celebrate cultural diversity — without putting any processes in place to ensure their diverse team are adequately protected or educated.

Unless racism is identified and the language around it changes, companies that fail to respond will face lawsuits, brand damage and a drop in productivity, which impacts their bottom line.

The price of inaction is huge and it should send a powerful message to organisations to take racism seriously.

The following looks at ways to address workplace racism:

Identify and promote the benefits of diversity in the workplace

Explain the business case; how it strengthens the company’s reputation, drives innovation and increases profits that in turn, provide employees with job security and career growth. A staff member taking sick days because of racism adds extra pressure on a team's workload during their absence.

Shaping anti-racism

Consider writing mandatory reporting into the value statement so racist incidents are reported when they occur. 

Invest in a buddy system and appoint a race champion within the leadership team, and ensure that inclusion and diversity are permanent items on the agenda at management meetings.

An anti-racism position statement should be included in the code of conduct and in employee contracts — and enforced, so it’s not just lip service.

Provide training around racism — investing in quality cultural diversity and multicultural education and training. Training needs to educate around the issues of racism, unconscious racial biases and discrimination. Use real-life examples of bad experiences and good practice. Set clear expectations of what your organisation stands for and maintain zero tolerance for racism.

Workers need to feel confident in the complaint process

Racism can silence workers from raising issues or making a complaint. Sometimes, colleagues from different backgrounds don’t feel heard when they approach human resources to raise an issue. Making it easier for staff to raise complaints will help demonstrate that racial discrimination isn’t tolerated.

Business leaders have a role to play in stamping out racism

Leaders have an obligation to support employees and commit to creating a culture of belonging. Make sure the multi-cultural landscape within your business is understood. Foster open dialogues about racial issues and encourage employee discussions around their experiences or observations. 

Maureen Kyne is a workplace bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination specialist. You can follow Maureen on Twitter @MaureenKyne.

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