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Racism at work

Racism in the workplace can be direct or subtle, it can be conscious or unwitting. It might come from your boss, your co-workers or be built into the way your organisation works.

The TUC (Trade Union Congress) says that racism occurs when somebody is treated differently to their colleagues because of their race or ethnic origin. Some common examples are when someone is called names, overlooked for promotion, denied training, overtime or other benefits. They may be offered unpopular shifts, shouted at, bullied, selected for redundancy or denied holiday entitlement.

It can lead to a loss of confidence, stress, humiliation, insomnia, low morale, anxiety, sickness and poor work performance. It is not just the employee who suffers; it can lead to disharmony in the workplace, unhappy workers, reduced output and profits and high levels of staff sickness. If found guilty of race discrimination, damages are unlimited.

It is unlawful to discriminate against any worker on racial grounds; the Race Relations Act of 1976 makes it unlawful to discriminate in: recruitment, pay (including bonuses and shift premiums, other terms and conditions (e.g. holidays), access to opportunities or benefits (promotion, training, bonuses), dismissal, or by disadvantaging a worker in any other way on racial grounds.

The TUC says there are three different types of discrimination forbidden by law:

1.Direct discrimination, which occurs when a worker is treated less favourably on the grounds of race, colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin. Direct discrimination is relatively easy to identify, but can be difficult to prove.

2.Indirect discrimination is more complicated and can be difficult to prove in a court of law or tribunal. Indirect discrimination flows from some condition put on applicants for a job if the condition: is likely to to lead to preference being given to one or more racial groups rather than others; it cannot be justified by the requirements of the job. For example, if a condition in a job ad was that all applicants must have high standards of spoken English, it would clearly discriminate against non-native English speakers. But if the job was working in a call centre, good spoken English is needed to do the job properly – this would not be indirect discrimination. If the ad were for a job on an assembly line, it be likely to be indirect discrimination because you do not need high standards of spoken English to operate routine machinery.

3.Victimisation is straightforward and occurs if you are treated less favourably because you have taken action under the Race Relations Act.

Any manager who tells someone to discriminate on racial grounds, or pressurises them in any other way to do so is breaking the law. If you are victimised in some way because you do not follow an instruction to discriminate, then you are likely to have a strong case to take to an employment tribunal.

The discrimination someone faces may come from the actions of colleagues at work, but the employer is still legally liable. They are responsible for ensuring that there is no racism in the workplace. However, individual employees can be held legally responsible.

The TUC says that going to law is not always the best option, court cases or tribunals can be stressful and the average settlement is around £5000. It recommends that you should talk to colleagues who might be suffering the same problems, to keep a diary of events, to find out if your employer has specific rules about racism at work or a grievance procedure you can use to raise a problem. Since the summer of 2000, the law has changed to allow you to bring a colleague or trade union officer with you to such hearings.

Racism can be be very subtle. Ayako Iba, a senior associate at ExecutiveSurf, who lives in London, says that when she visits her second home, Italy, it is hard not to see the clear divide between the locals and those considered ‘foreigners’.

She says there is commonly a difference between those who are considered foreigners and others who are called extracomunitari, which means those who are not part of the community. So Europeans and other nationals who reside in Italy as expatriots or students are foreigners and those who in the locals’ eyes look like illegal immigrants are extracomunitari. She says: “If you are dark skinned or have Asian features, it is unlikely Italians would consider the possibility of you, too, being Italian and if you are waiting for a train, for example, you cannot help but notice that people tend to avoid standing where the extracomunitari are.”

In a recent BBC online race survey, 34% of black people said they had faced racial discrimination at work and 29% of Asians report the same treatment. The negative attitudes to ethnic minorities in the workplace may be related to the belief that they have not made much of a contribution to British society as a whole, which is not surprising as 44% say immigration has damaged British society, with only 30% saying it has been beneficial.
48% of full-time workers believe that the colour of a person’s skin makes a difference in the way they are treated at work. One in three say that “people mind working for someone of a different race” and one in four even say people would mind working at a place with someone of a different race.

28% of white respondents said ethnic minorities are given extra advantages when it comes to hiring, citing positive discrimination. Overall, the dispiriting conclusion of the survey is that the racial divide, in reality and perception, is greater in the sphere of employment than elsewhere.

Another survey asked the question “How do you deal with racist people?” and then published some suggestions and techniques for dealing with racist behaviour.

The key suggestion is to react calmly and to convey disapproval or discomfort without provoking a defensive reaction. One suggestion was to question their use of words or action, so that you can gauge their intent: “Why do say/do that?” . Let them know how their comment or joke makes you feel and, if possible, question their fear and ignorance.
Do not get triggered; one respondent said that racist people want to push your buttons to get you angry and it may be best laugh and keep walking or to compliment them on something, along the lines of , “Nice shirt”, or just, “Love you mate”.

Research suggests that speaking up is good for the bystander (lasting satisfaction of having done something), good for the victim of the abuse (feel a sense of belonging and less damaged by the insult) and possibly good for the perpetrator (bystander action disproves that their prejudice is the norm and may make them less ready to express it).

Adele Horin says: “One person challenging a racist comment in a calm and measured way in a train, a bus, at a party, or at work, can have a profound influence on all those who witness it.” Avoid calling someone racist as people tend to get more upset about being called racist than the fact that their actions were racist. It might, however be possible to point out that their actions were racist and conveying social norms and what is considered acceptable.

Most contributors stressed that you should not follow your initial emotional response, control your anger and remain calm.

One told an interesting story: “My wife is African-American and I am white. Shortly after we got married we moved to Florida, where I got a job on a construction crew. The contractor we were working for had several crews and as we were finishing up one house, the discussion turned to where each individual was going next.

One guy, Chris, said: ‘I don’t want to work on Joe’s crew.’ Joe was a black man and had a reputation as a good foreman to work for. The conversation continued and Chris was asked, ‘Why not?’

I listened as Chris replied, ‘Well, you know, he’s black and I don’t want to work for a black guy’. I continued to work alongside Chris, listening as the conversation continued. ‘What’s wrong with working for a black guy?’ someone else asked.

Chris then went on to the usual list of stereotypes; ‘Well they’re lazy, they stink’ and so on. At this point I couldn’t keep quiet.

‘You know Chris, ‘One of them did something to me that is going to affect me for the rest of my life.’ Chris took the bait: ‘What was that?’

I said: ‘She married me.’ Chris started back-pedalling like I had never seen.”

Nigel Phillips

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