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Recognising Hidden Racism
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Racism in the workplace is often subtle: a quietly demoralizing process by which employees of colour are intimidated, side-lined, bullied.
Alicia Richardson, expert in bias-free recruiting, shares her own personal experience and explains how employees and employers can create a more inclusive Editorial Society.
My parents would always tell me: “As a black woman you need to work twice as hard, studying is mandatory, and you need to take all the experience you can to thrive in life.” To be honest: I never really understood what they were saying, until I entered the working world and experienced how deeply racism is still ingrained in our society.
I noticed that although I saw a large volume of people that looked like me throughout my education, there was an underrepresentation within the workplace. When I started my first role in recruitment, I realized why. I remember being on the phone with a client and they specifically said: “Please ensure we don’t have anyone black in the hiring process.” On the phone, they didn’t know I was black. Of course, I refused to work with them after that conversation.
In addition to this blatant racism, there are other blockers some companies put in place that undermine ethnic minorities: Systematic racism, such as requesting that applicants come from particular universities, putting particular people on the hiring panel who naturally gravitate to white applicants, or paying us less, giving us more hurdles to jump through for a promotion or simply excluding us.
I remember working at a talent consultancy a few years ago, which was the worst working experience of my life. I've never publicly said what I exactly experienced, however for the purpose of this article, I’ll highlight a few examples and explain what type of racism these behaviours are linked to – and how you as an employee or employer can react to similar situations or, even better, how to prevent them.
After all, it is central to the flourishing of the Editorial Society that all its members are treated with dignity and given the equal opportunity to express themselves – and this process starts with us, in our everyday communication with our colleagues.
The worst job I ever had
At this company, barely a week went by without someone leaving the business. Always sudden, always cold and 90 percent of the time they were from an ethnic minority background.
I recall a time where I was having lunch with six work colleagues, who all happened to be black, and the CEO approached us asking us to separate and mingle with everyone else – who happened to be non-black. This was a form of racial harassment as he only approached our group of black employees on our lunch break and asked us to separate. I looked at my colleague to say: “Is this normal here?” And he said: “This is what he does all the time.”
I remember when a white employee claimed that myself and two other black girls on three separate occasions were “aggressive” towards her, because of messages on Slack. This claim is an insensitive accusation especially to a black woman, as we have historically wrongly been labelled as aggressive – the “angry black woman” is a common stereotype. If the employee truly felt that she didn’t like the tone of all messages sent on separate occasions, a better solution would have been to discuss this directly with each employee in a respectful manner and not automatically escalate this to HR, especially when the claim wasn’t even true.
My manager at the time would pull me up for minor errors over and over – mistakes he let slide with white colleagues. When I tried to make a report about another employee – after hearing her gossiping about me with others and getting rejected when I tried to talk to her – he first accused me of lying and then invented a complaint form that didn’t exist to prevent me from complaining to HR. One time he assumed I was selling stolen perfumes off the back of “hearsay” from another colleague. Days later when someone complimented how I smelt, he decided to write me: “Remember what we spoke about.''
I could list several more examples of how I experienced racism at that company. If you are experiencing anything like what I described above, seek support from your HR, or an external employee resource group, record each event, write down every conversation that is questionable and link events to the different types of discrimination acts below:
Direct vs. Indirect
Indirect: When a rule or policy set by an employer places people from certain racial, ethnic, or national groups at a disadvantage.
It can include any unwanted conduct related to an employee’s race, especially when it creates an offensive environment.
Portrays false generalizations and attributes the same characteristics to all members of a particular group. (If you have a mindset that people from certain groups operate the same, try to rethink your opinion and get to know each individual for who they are.)
Managers must be mindful of how fair the criticism is to all staff, particularly minority groups, reacting quickly to criticisms that go a step too far.
Where differences of opinion or failing to get along with a co-worker may be treated as more serious due to the hostility held against them.
If you’re someone that isn’t mindful of how their actions or words may affect others, stop and think about how you’re acting:
Think about how you can learn more about others, how you can approach situations with empathy and understanding. Here’s a handy “Do” list that will help you be a better ally to decrease discrimination in the workplace:
Be open to listening
Be aware of your biases
Research, never stop learning – Remember you don’t know it all
Acknowledge the part you play
Use your privilege to speak up
Accept criticism with grace, even if it’s uncomfortable
Do the work every day to learn how to be a better ally
When I resigned from my past job, I decided that I want to work with a business that supports diverse and inclusive working cultures. So, I approached Hidden, a talent agency specializing in bias-free hiring technology. Ever since my working life has completely changed for the better. I’m corrected with love, I feel supported, cared for, and largely championed by the business leaders. This has enabled me to thrive faster than I could imagine in my career.Where differences of opinion or failing to get along with a co-worker may be treated as more serious due to the hostility held against them.
When I started at Hidden, I promised myself that moving forward I will empower those from under-represented communities, I’ll turn my pain into a passion and transform the mindset of senior business leads, by teaching them new ways of approaching hiring and operating an inclusive environment. I also aimed to expose ethnic minorities to more opportunities and educate them on how to best recognise and handle discrimination at work.
In my most recent project with the LOOPING GROUP, I successfully hired 68.75% women and 56.25% ethnic minorities, through implementing an inclusive hiring process. I have also established a black talent network where we share continuous opportunities and provide peer to peer support. As I take the next step in my career as a Senior Talent Partner at Engine, I plan to establish myself further in the diversity and inclusion space and empower more underrepresented communities resulting in a more inclusive, and equal workforce.
As the author Sharon Dodua Otoo said: Racism is like a mountain that you have to remove piece by piece with a toothbrush. The work cannot be done alone, so hopefully this article inspires you to work towards a truly inclusive, diverse Editorial Society.
About the Author
Alicia Richardson is a talent, culture, and Respect, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (RDE&I) specialist who has experience in hiring across UK, US and Europe and devising unique RDE&I strategies. Some of the companies she's worked with throughout her career include, Spotify, Mirum, Analog folk, Reload Digital, Hogarth, Freeda Media, Media cause, and LOOPING GROUP. She creates and runs RDE&I training programs, and helps to reshape hiring processes and internal cultures, and prides herself on building, educating, and supporting underrepresented communities. In the space of under a year, a community that she has built from ground up with over 200 members is the black talent network, which has grown to offer opportunities and support to black professionals. She recently started a new role at Engine as a Senior Talent Partner because she wanted to have an impact on not just who we're hiring, but how Engine are truly reflecting an inclusive culture.