Everything you need to know about anti-racism in the workplace
People of colour, particularly women of colour, have consistently been marginalized in Canadian institutions. The workplace is no different. While dialogue on systemic racism has risen in public prominence over the past year, issues of racism in the workplace long predate the work of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Currently, 3 out of 5 black Canadians note that racism is a problem in their workplace. A new study from Catalyst shows that “52% of Indigenous Peoples working in Canada said they are regularly on guard [against experiencing] bias… with women on guard (67%) significantly more than men (38%).” This same study noted that indigenous employees continue to face entrenched bias and discrimination issues that impact their well-being and professional advancement. Two-thirds of South Asian employees report that workplace racism has damaged their employer/employee relationship. And many other Canadians of colour continue to share their experiences with microaggressions and harassment in the workplace.
We also know that increased public dialogue on these issues often results in the impacted groups bearing the burden of these discussions. The most intense period of dialogue and publicity on the #BlackLivesMatter movement in spring of 2020 coincided with a decline in mental health scores about Black Canadians by 1.8 points. Racial inequity and having to constantly combat racial discrimination takes its toll on employees. Catalyst’s new report on combating the emotional tax put on people of colour in Canadian workplaces noted that “22%-42% of people highly on guard against bias report high rates of sleep problems, and many people consider leaving their jobs or report hiding their true identities and unique selves to self-protect against…” emotional tax, or “feeling different from peers at work because of gender, race, and/or ethnicity, being on guard to experiences of bias, and the associated effects on health, well-being, and ability to thrive at work.”
These issues are not limited solely to office-based workplaces either. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Statistics Canada found that minoritized people formed a larger representative proportion of front-line workers, including “nurse aides, orderlies, and patient service associates.” This means that Canadians of colour faced increased exposure to the virus and were more likely to get sick than other Canadians, highlighting the social determinants of health. Minoritized people were also much more likely to be disproportionately economically and socially impacted by the COVID pandemic. Read on to learn more about anti-racism and tips on how to reverse these trends in your workplace to ensure your employees of colour are heard, supported, and represented.
In “How to be Anti-racist,” scholar and activist Ibram X. Kendi defines an anti-racist as “[o]ne who is supporting an anti-racist policy through their actions or expressing an anti-racist idea.” Moving from “I’m not racist” to “I am anti-racist” requires an action mindset and a commitment to change. It asks people to engage critically with their own biases. As Kendi explains: “the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it — and then dismantle it.” Becoming anti-racist requires a shift in perspective to understanding that we all play a role in systemic oppression. Even if we didn’t personally create the system of white supremacy, we may passively benefit or suffer under it. And we simultaneously have the power to change these conditions through our choices and actions. Anti-racist work is found not only in the grand gestures of protests and media coverage, but more importantly in the small everyday choices of our workplaces, our families, and our communities. To further understand what it means to be anti-racist, click here to read more.
Even beyond the current requirement to make the workplace inclusive and equitable for all employees, the need for an inclusive workplace is only likely to grow: according to Great Place to Work, the incoming generation of Gen Z employees is likely to be the most diverse workforce to day, with “47% of Gen Z employees identifying as [black, indigenous persons of colour]. By comparison, 39% of Millennial workers…as [people of colour], versus 34% of Gen X and only 25% of Boomers.” Being a responsive employer means considering the needs of a more diverse hiring pool and workforce.
When people are marginalized in their organization, they have less bargaining power or capacity to campaign for better and more inclusive workplaces. When the Financial Post analyzed 2019 required reporting under the Canada Business Corporations Act, they found that “out of the 23 boards and 255 director positions total, only 14 directors, or approximately 5.5 per cent, identified as belonging to a visible minority.” They also found that Indigenous and visibly disabled directors each make up less than 1% of representation on boards and in director positions. Research shows that employees in marginalized groups are less comfortable negotiating for benefits or asking for a raise due to discriminatory workplace practices and senior leadership levels dominated by white Canadians, and this discomfort has risen even further under COVID-19. Employers have a responsibility to mitigate these discriminatory workplace practices in order to support employees, and create a more productive, satisfied workforce. For more information on the importance of being anti-racist in the workplace, click here.
How to create an anti-racist workplace
We know that the ability to speak safety about racial issues and trauma, as well as providing a safe and constructive space for problem-solving are critical to creating more inclusive workplaces. While an employer may not have all the answers, engaging in these difficult conversations, and remaining respectful and constructive is key. If you are struggling with how to embody anti-racism in the workplace, there are a number of actions you can take to begin your journey. And if you don’t know the answer to a question, there are many ways to find out. Do your own research, such as referring to TimesUp’s “Building an Anti-Racist Workplace” guide or similar resources, or refer to our blog here for ways to create an anti-racist workplace.
Despite these worrying trends having a long history and systemic racism being historically rooted in Canadian systems, many Canadians were introduced to issues of racial inequity for the first time due to the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s work in 2020. There is no better time than the present to start having difficult but necessary conversations about racism in the workplace, particularly because we know that an inclusive workplace can have a strong positive effect on employees of colour’s wellbeing. In July 2020, as organizations began having conversations on racial inequity and implementing diverse policies, Black Canadians’ “mental health scores showed a 0.9-point increase,” demonstrating the importance that these conversations have on Canadians of colour’s workplace experiences.
Racism is a complicated issue. Sometimes it is tempting for an organization to view it numerically, for instance focus on achieving a certain quota in hiring or offering a certain number of relevant training courses. In reality, diversity is bigger than numbers alone, and should be thought of as an organization-wide policy or approach. With the benefits of having a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace clear, how do employees and employers work to make this a reality? For actionable items on why anti-racism is ongoing in the workplace, see our blog here.
For many white Canadians, the struggle in understanding anti-racism doesn’t lie in the why it’s important, it lies in understanding how to implement it in practice. Even if you have the best intentions to act as an ally in your workplace or create a more inclusive and diverse environment, learning the processes to do so while ensuring everyone is included, heard, and appropriately represented can seem daunting. For instance, you may have heard the term “white privilege,” but how is that concept embedded in the workplace? How can you include your employees of colour without tokenizing their representation? Or as Peggy McIntosh says in her foundational 1989 article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, “Having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?” To find more anti-racist resources to get you started, click here.
Speaking truth to power is an activist tactic that can open space in a workplace looking to create a more diverse and equitable organization. Speak to your senior leadership about goals for the organization, and how diversity is an organizational imperative for the mission, vision, values, and strategic approach of the company. Ask and listen for current employee’s experiences with the organization’s culture. Consult diverse employees and focus on making a plan of action. Listen to your employee’s and colleagues’ wants and needs and identify current gaps in the structure. This may involve having challenging conversations and asking for difficult feedback, as well as ensuring that all those engaging are prepared for this dialogue through expert facilitation and support. If you need additional guidance or support in creating a diversity, equity, and inclusion plan for the organization, consider reaching out to professional specialists or consultants like Canadian Equality Consulting who can work with you to develop an actionable approach. Holding space for these conversations should not only be the responsibility of employees of colour as well, white employees should also take on the burden of speaking out, calling out inaction, and providing room for productive dialogue. To further understand how to confront racism in the workplace, click here.
Racial discrimination and harassment are against the law in Canada. Despite this, incidents occur in the workplace, and knowing what to do in these situations as an ally and advocate can help make the workplace safer and more inclusive. According to the Environics Institute for Survey Research, a third to a half of Canadians of colour report being discriminated against, and 40% of those who say they experienced racism said that it occurred at work, making the workplace one of the most prevalent locations of racial discrimination.
Whether it’s making a formal complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, accessing the resources of the Federal Anti-Racism Secretariat, or knowing the rights of your colleagues and yourself under the Canadian Human Rights Act, there are options available to secure a workplace free of discrimination. For the full breakdown of how and where to report racism in the workplace, click here.
Rooting out racism in your organization needs to be an active process, and an intersectional lens should be utilized. How does a Black employee with small children experience the workday? How does that differ from a disabled, indigenous employee? Different facets of identity may change how an employee is able to access and fulfil their role, and small workplaces accommodations can improve both employee productivity and happiness.
If you want your workplace to be more diverse, it is also important to ensure that you are appealing diverse hiring pools. This means asking hard questions about your existing accommodations and working options: do you offer flexible time off plans for employees with different holiday schedules? Do you offer accessible policies for employees with disabilities? Flexible work-from-home or hybrid options? Opportunities for skills training and career advancement? These pieces can make a big difference in the workforce you are able to hire and retain. Ask what approaches to work your senior leadership is supporting and modelling, and that these approaches to inclusion are being implemented every day
Ultimately, remember that diversity is not merely a checklist, but an overall commitment to creating organization-wide systemic change. To understand how to be a better ally to your employees and colleagues of colour in the workplace, read more here.
For all your bespoke diversity and equality guidance, contact Canadian Equality Consulting to begin a discussion on how to make your workplace anti-racist and more responsive to the needs of your diverse employees.