What is Racism in the Workplace?

Oxford Dictionary defines racism as “the belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another.”

Racism as it relates to the workplace, however, is often subtle. For example, a certain group of employees (e.g. African American, Asian, etc.) may be ignored or assumptions may be made about one’s ability to complete a job. It is often rooted within an organization through its policies, procedures, and practices.

Examples of Racism in the Workplace

There are several ways racism occurs in the workplace. For this purpose, we will explore systemic racism, direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, racial harassment, and discrimination by association.

Systemic Racism

Systemic racism, also known as structural racism or institutional racism, is defined by Fitchburg State University as racism that exists across a society’s institutions and organizations that produces and perpetuate inequities for racial minorities. A few examples of systemic racism are housing discrimination, racial profiling, and employment practices.

A 2017 NPR Discrimination in America Survey found that 56% of Black Americans experienced discrimination when applying for a job and 57% experienced pay discrimination or discrimination while being considered for a promotion.

Direct Discrimination

Direct racism is defined as an individual treating another differently based on their protected class, such as age, race, and/or religion.  Many deny that racism exists in the workplace unless deliberate actions are visible. Unfortunately, direct discrimination is not always visible. For example, questioning the judgment of a Black employee or consistently referring to stereotypes is subtle direct discrimination.

Indirect Discrimination

Indirect discrimination is when the organization’s policies and practices are the same for everyone, creating a disadvantage for minorities and the underprivileged. This form of discrimination is difficult to recognize and mitigate. A common example of indirect discrimination is the case of Griggs v. Duke Power Company. In this case, the company required IQ test scores and a high school diploma for certain positions. The adverse discriminatory impact was that African American applicants were disqualified at higher rates. The Supreme Court determined that the purpose of the test was to eliminate African Americans from the hiring process, was not a business necessity and therefore deemed indirect discrimination.

Racial Harassment

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the agency responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate based on one’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin. and/or age. This agency defines racial harassment in the workplace as wide-ranging, such as racial jokes, derogatory remarks, intimidation, name-calling, insults, and comments. Such harassment is not only limited to verbal abuse but images and/or objects as well.

Discrimination by Association

Discrimination by association occurs when an organization makes an employment decision based on an employee or applicant’s relationship with another individual. An example of this type of discrimination would be a manager who fires a white employee for marrying a Hispanic individual because of racist beliefs.

How to Prevent Racism in the Workplace

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) provides the following recommendations for organizations to combat racism in the workplace.

Step 1: Provide Racial Bias Training

Training your employees provides an opportunity to develop a team and improve performance and workplace culture. There are many options for racial bias training, but the most common is unconscious bias training. Unconscious biases occur without one’s knowledge or intention influencing their decisions based on the characteristics of another. For example, name bias occurs when an individual prefers certain names over others, particularly names that sound Anglo. This type of bias can negatively impact the hiring and promoting of a more diverse group of individuals, placing the organization at risk from a legal perspective.

Step 2: Provide a Safe Place

Providing a safe workplace is essential for any organization, as employees want to feel as though they belong. What does this type of environment look like? First, you need to know and understand how people in your organization behave and react to others. Be committed to the cause, foster a collaborative work environment and provide an opportunity for employees to share their feelings and experiences.

SHRM shared a study conducted by the NeuroLeadership Institute that found, “ when team members feel safe discussing racism openly and exploring whether unconscious racial biases are negatively impacting their decisions, the conversations are likely to have a more lasting and sustainable impact.”

Step 3: Know the Law

Simply put, know the law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act is a federal law that prohibits racial discrimination in the workplace. There may also be state and local laws that are applicable to your organization in your location. It is important to know these laws because they provide guidelines for both the employer and employee. When an organization violates one of these laws, it can be devastating to an organization (e.g. fines and other legal action).

How to Handle Racism in the Workplace

Acknowledge Racism Exist

Don’t be naive. Racism exists. In order to prevent racism within your organization, you must be willing to listen, acknowledge that it exists and fight against it. Too often, those who have not experienced racism firsthand initially respond by ignoring it. Why? These conversations are difficult to have.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recommends the BRAVE framework when having difficult conversations about race:

  • Build the intention, focus, and safety needed to have honest conversations about race.
  • Respect the sensitivity of the topic while challenging people to go beyond the superficial. Basically, respect the boundaries of others.
  • Acknowledge the uncomfortable realities of the past and the present. Slavery and Jim Crow are difficult to imagine; however, it is the reality.
  • Validate the experience of your racially marginalized employees. Simply put, acknowledge that racism exists.
  • Emphasize how your company is prioritizing goals and metrics around racial equity.

Policies and Procedures

Significant changes are made through an organization’s internal policies, procedures, and practices. Review your current policies, procedures, and practices to ensure that your company is compliant with federal, state, and local laws. Consider outside expertise for evaluation as necessary.


Any claims of racial discrimination require immediate action. Follow these steps:

Step 1. Meet with the employee making the claim.

Step 2. Review the complaint.

Step 3. Conduct your investigation (e.g interview witnesses).

Step 4. Complete and submit your report with recommendations.

Step 5. Document the investigation.