Real People, Real Impact: Racial Discrimination

March 15, 2023 | Diversity & Inclusion | 6 min read

In February, The New York Times reported on an extensive study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggesting that childbirth is deadlier for Black mothers – even when they’re wealthy. The research serves as another proof point for racial discrimination in the United States.

But racial discrimination is not only an issue in healthcare:

  • It happens in schools, where 15.8% of students report experiencing race-based bullying or harassment.
  • It happens in the criminal justice system, where Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested – and once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted and experience lengthy prison sentences.
  • It happens in the job market, where Black individuals are twice as likely to be unemployed than white individuals.
  • And it happens in the workplace, where a recent poll showed that one in four Black employees in the U.S. report having been discriminated against at work in the past year.

Racial discrimination in the workplace takes a serious toll on the individuals it effects—the victims—causing anxiety, depression, fear of going to work, and physical or emotional harm. It can be overt or subtle – often involving stereotyping, being overlooked for promotions, and being subjected to implicit or unconscious bias, overly critical managers, and even open hostility. And it happens to most racial minorities, unfortunately.

Ron’s Story

Ron was working as the International Sales Manager and IT Director at a startup when he experienced racial discrimination at work. At first, he didn’t realize how toxic his work environment had become. He worked long hours, but isn’t that everyone’s experience of a startup?

It wasn’t until Ron began to receive overtly abusive treatment from his coworkers and superiors that he realized he was the victim of workplace harassment.

“If I was negotiating a deal and somebody’s computer went down, he would start whistling like I was a dog over the intercom,” Ron admitted.

And the harassment wasn’t limited to his skin color. Ron identifies as a homosexual male, and his coworkers used this as fodder for their abuse. This type of discrimination is known as homophobia. Homophobia and racial discrimination can manifest in various ways, including verbal or physical abuse, exclusion from social or professional opportunities, and discrimination in hiring or promotion decisions.

“I was made to feel selfish. I was made to feel stupid,” said Ron. “[They would make up] horrible narratives regarding Black gay men . . . it was just foulness.”

To add insult to injury, Ron noticed that he wasn’t being paid the whole amount he was promised. “At that moment,” he said, “I realized I was the proverbial frog in the boiling pot.” He finally had enough. After 23 years spent establishing his career in the tech industry, Ron just . . . left.

“I didn’t realize that it was killing me,” said Ron. “That’s why I left the industry, because I was done.” Ron remembers his anxiety at work: “I was being publicly shamed, publicly attacked by people who ultimately, in hindsight, hated themselves. But needed to have someone like me around so they could make themselves feel better.”

Today, he urges anyone experiencing workplace harassment to: “Know that you are so much more valuable than what you are experiencing. So the question is, when is your suffering going to end? That can happen now. You don’t have to wait for it.”

By speaking up and advocating for themselves and others, he urges employees and employers to play a role in ending workplace harassment.

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Guidelines for Building Civility in a Workplace Free of Harassment

The goal of an anti-harassment and bullying program is not merely to prevent hostile conduct but also to inspire positive behavior in the form of collaboration, open communication, and civility. This requires a multi-faceted approach that engages the organization at all levels.

Here are some essential steps to consider:

Get leadership involved. It is critical that corporate leadership fully buys into and supports any effort to foster a healthy, harassment-free work environment for employees. Corporate cultural norms typically originate at the top of the corporate ladder, so leadership must “walk the walk” of appropriate behavior and “talk the talk.”

Put it in writing. A clear workplace civility policy should clarify not only what’s unacceptable regarding discrimination and harassment, but also what is expected in terms of positive behavior. This policy should incorporate any necessary legal guidance and best practices.

Provide training. Policies are useless if they sit on a shelf. Confirm that every employee and manager understands what’s expected of them with a comprehensive training program, regardless of their role or level within the organization. This will ensure that everyone understands the importance of treating people with respect in the workplace and is held to the same moral standards.

Teach managers how to respond. While every employee should be trained to recognize and avoid inappropriate conduct, managers and supervisors must also understand how to respond to a complaint or inquiry when it arises. Equipping them with the muscle memory to understand how to listen, respond appropriately, and communicate next steps to the reporter is key.

Create a transparent reporting and escalation process. Employees who feel harassed or intimidated should know precisely how to report their concerns and have faith that they will be acted upon appropriately and promptly.

Establish appropriate investigative procedures. Organizations can minimize – and hopefully avoid – bias and treat all claims fairly by defining a straightforward process for investigating complaints . . . and by sticking to that process in all circumstances and with all people within the organization.

Protect employees that speak up. Employees who come forward should be assured that they will not suffer retaliation, punishment, or negative impacts simply for raising a concern related to discrimination or harassment.

Hold people accountable. Employees must know that actions have consequences and that starts with making clear what the potential consequences are, communicating those consequences, and enforcing those consequences, at every level.

When your employees understand the consequences of discrimination and harassment, your organization has taken an essential step toward developing an inclusive work environment. By embracing a continuous training program that discourages abusive behavior, you’ll create a positive feedback loop of inclusivity — and, in turn, attract employees who value diversity and respect.

This is the final installment in Skillsoft’s three-part series on workplace harassment, which includes intimidating, offensive, or abusive conduct. Whether it manifests as name-calling, physical assault, threats, or something else, workplace harassment can impact real people within your organization.

Ron is not alone. He is among one in four black workers who have experienced racial discrimination at work.

Learn why harassment training has historically failed and how you can make a real impact on your employees through effective training.