“The ultimate measure of a person is not where one stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where one stands in times of challenge and controversy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

3 tips to help leaders and managers navigate racism in organisations and teams

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Having been born in the UK to Iraqi parents, racism is something I have had to deal with throughout my life along with countless others.

When I was in a primary school in West Drayton I remember someone threatening to beat the brown off me – fortunately, I had a good friend in secondary school who protected me by inviting me to play football with him.

When I was in secondary school, I was in a predominantly white school in Ascot. I remember when the 7/7 bombings hit a group of my peers called me a terrorist, someone said that my dad was a bomber and a big group surrounded me and threatened to beat me up. There was another incident where someone called me a “!#@$ paki!” at school. That was the only time I actually spoke up and he got suspended.

Now beginning my 30’s it shocks me to see that people still treat me and others in this awful, small-minded way. A couple of years ago when I was in York with my wife, someone yelled some racist slurs at me while they whizzed past on their bike and more recently when I visited one of my favourite corners of the earth, the New Forest, my wife and I went to a local pub and got the dirtiest looks from the locals and had to leave.

However, I have also been on the other end of the scale – the privileged end that is thought well of just because of how I look and speak.

A few years back I lived and worked in Qatar with my wife for a few months. My wife, who is white would get some horrendous looks and tutting when we were out together. I noticed, that just because of my skin colour, and that I could speak Arabic – I was treated completely differently to her and many of my white colleagues. Once, a restaurant held my table even though we were over an hour late just because I am an Arab. Then in the airport, returning after a trip back home, I was ushered over to have my suitcase randomly searched but as soon as I spoke Arabic, the guard told me to go.

Racism is everywhere and unfortunately, I don’t see it vanishing any time soon, but it is something we need to know how to deal with and navigate as managers and leaders. We need to be right at the front of our teams and organisations showing everyone how to stand in unity and without prejudice. So how can we do this? Let’s take a look at some steps we can take.

1) Have an open discussion

This is a great starting point. We know discrimination exists even in its “unintentional” or “silent” forms and you as a leader or manager may not see it. Don’t be naive to think you don’t need to do anything because you haven’t seen it. Racism is not always obvious but it does exist and it does need to be dealt with.

Having a discussion with various different people groups in your organisation or teams can help people have a platform to sound their concerns. Are certain behaviour or processes or ways of working or social get together causing division? Does anyone feel excluded or on the fringes? Why? What can be done to change this? When and how?

When having an open discussions about racism, emotions are all over the place. It would be best to ensure that the discussion group is a safe place for everyone to express how they feel without judgement. Sometimes we won’t always be able to get across how we feel in the right way – so there needs to be room for assuming right intentions.

One discussion isn’t going to be enough. The discussions need to be ongoing, people should be given an ear to hear and should have the opportunity for you to share any changes that have been made in light of these discussions.

2) Draw a clear line

Racism and discrimination of any kind in the workplace or anywhere else for that matter should not be thought of lightly. It is serious and the team and organisation should be clear about the severity of the issues and the consequences of discriminating against anyone. I found this page from the Citizens Advice Bureau really useful for defining discrimination, its many forms and legal consequences/actions.

Managers and leaders need to communicate what is expected of employees and the way the culture should respond to such issues. Are your staff/team aware of what processes to follow should they be on the receiving end or witness discrimination?

3) Be an example

Don’t just talk the talk – walk the walk. If you are a manager or leader in the workplace you cannot expect those you manage to follow your lead and do what needs to be done unless you do likewise. Cultures fail because often those who are managing and leading at the top fail to exhibit the various aspects of that culture. What happens when someone sees their managers and leaders racially abuse someone and laugh it off as no big deal? What happens when racism is not dealt with when it is heard or seen? What happens is that you are saying through your actions and inaction that racism is OK. That it is tolerable in the organisation and that those who are on the receiving end will have no justice. They need to just sit there and take it.

Leaders need to be at the front of the line showing everyone how it is done. This is how we approach racism. This is how we identify it. This is how we nip it in the bud. What do your people see when they look at your managers and leaders?

Summary

Racism is a difficult and sensitive topic to approach in any setting but it does exist and it does need to be handled appropriately. I have provided 3 simple tips that can help you get started but there is much more you can do. Start by employing these 3 tips in your teams and read up on the topic.

Here are some articles suggested in this Harvard Business Review post that will help you be more informed about racism and dealing with it at work:

Is Your Company Actually Fighting Racism, or Just Talking About It?
Leaders must start by reckoning with their Black employees’ experiences at work. (June 2020)

How Organizations Can Support the Mental Health of Black Employees 
Few leaders have the skills and training to confront the trauma caused by racism. (June 2020)

U.S. Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action Against Racism
Here’s what leaders can do today. (June 2020)

How U.S. Companies Can Support Employees of Color Through the Pandemic
Though we say we’re all in this together, we’re not all in the same boat. (May 2020)

Toward a Racially Just Workplace
Diversity efforts are failing Black employees. Here’s a better approach. (November 2019)

“Dear White Boss…”
Unsaid words from a Black manager. (November 2002)

Hiring Discrimination Against Black Americans Hasn’t Declined in 25 Years
A meta-analysis of job callback rates. (October 2017)

Why Aren’t Black Employees Getting More White-Collar Jobs?
A look at U.S. cities shows progress has been slow and uneven. (February 2018)

People Suffer at Work When They Can’t Discuss the Racial Bias They Face Outside of It
They become more disengaged and more likely to leave. (July 2017)

Even at “Inclusive” Companies, Women of Color Don’t Feel Supported
This can prevent employees from connecting across ethnic and racial differences. (August 2019)

Getting Over Your Fear of Talking About Diversity
Advice for leaders who are afraid of saying the wrong thing. (November 2019)

How the Best Bosses Interrupt Bias on Their Teams
Strategies to foster equity and inclusion. (November 2019)

How to Reduce Personal Bias When Hiring
Six steps you can implement. (June 2019)

Why Diversity Programs Fail
And what works better for organizations. (July 2016)

“Numbers Only Take Us So Far”
Facebook’s global director of diversity explains why stats alone won’t solve the problem of organizational bias. (November 2017)

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