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How to support racialized employees in the workplace

Practical tips to cultivate an anti-racist mindset and foster an inclusive work culture.

Published on

August 18, 2023


Do you think about your race daily?

It’s a question that Barbara Yebuga, a communications consultant focused on Diversity and Inclusion, posed to attendees of our webinar, DEI – An Introduction: Practical steps, key takeaways and lessons learned.

Regardless of your answer, the construct of race has a direct impact on many aspects of our day-to-day lives in the workplace, affecting everything from earning potential to career trajectories and the composition of our organizations.

Despite the many studies showing that organizations with higher diversity outperform their peers, there is still a lot of work to do to ensure equal opportunity for all in today’s workplaces. Studies have shown that racialized individuals in Canada are over-qualified and underpaid for the work they do, and they’re also promoted less often when compared to non-racialized employees. Consider these findings:

  • Black professionals specifically have the highest over-qualification rate of any Canadian group.
  • Racialized women hold only 9.4% of leadership roles in Canada. And of these, Indigenous women and Black women each hold less than 1.5% of senior leadership roles and pipeline positions.
  • Most racialized graduates reported lower employment earnings than their non-racialized and non-Indigenous counterparts two years after graduation.

Below, we’ve highlighted some of Barbara’s insights and tips for supporting racialized employees in the workplace.

Use the right language

The acronym BIPOC, referring to Black/Indigenous/people of colour, has become part of mainstream vocabulary since the DEI movement gained momentum in 2020.

But is this the most appropriate term to use? Barbara doesn’t think so.

She feels that it doesn’t capture a person’s diverse identities, intersectionalities and unique experiences and instead recommends using the broader term racialized individual when referring to those who are not of European descent.

You’ll notice we’re taking her advice and using the term racialized throughout this blog.

Avoid tokenism and emotional tax

Some organizations ask racialized employees to share their lived experiences with others as part of their DEI programming. However, Barbara cautions that this is a form of tokenism (when the dominant majority views one person as a representative of an entire minority group) and it can create an emotional tax—defined by Catalyst as the “combination of feeling different from peers at work because of gender, race, and/or ethnicity.”  

Rather than relying on others for our education, Barbara recommends we do our own work.

Here are her tips:

  • First, take ownership of your learning as an individual or organization before reaching out to folks in racialized communities. Do your own research, read and listen to podcasts.
  • Then, look for DEI experts—either external consultants or members of your own team who have the required training and have indicated they are open to engaging in this work. Before moving forward, confirm they have the emotional bandwidth to participate in your programming and always clarify how you can compensate them for their insights.
    Consideration: While we often reach out to the same people for insights, keep in mind that their willingness to participate and energy levels may change over time. Ensure ongoing consent by regularly checking in with them rather than assuming they’re still available to engage.

Move from "Not Racist" to "Anti-Racist"

While “not racist” and “anti-racist” sound similar, there is one fundamental difference. Action.

“I’m not racist” is a passive statement, whereas being anti-racist requires intentional actions (i.e., educating yourself, engaging with marginalized communities, actively countering racist behaviour and practices, etc.). Barbara encourages everyone to strive to be an anti-racist.

And while it’s important to actively and openly counter racist behaviour, it’s not up to you to ensure every individual unlearns racist beliefs. Instead, Barbara encourages us to focus on dismantling racist structures and systems and create a fair and equitable experience for everyone.

Practical tips

  • Treat anti-racism as a strategic pillar by developing goals that can be achieved through tangible actions and measured with KPIs.
    • For example, if your organization’s goal is to empower staff to adopt an anti-racist mindset, you could plan training and workshops. Afterwards, measure the results of each session through staff participation, attendance and feedback.
    • Or perhaps your organization has a goal to increase representation at the leadership level. To support this, you could develop leadership programs for racialized staff and measure how many participants are pipelined into senior positions.
    Bonus: Have champions of this work at the leadership level to ensure that efforts move beyond HR.
  • Create mechanisms for employees to report prejudiced behaviour or systemic inequality in your workplace. Something as simple as an anonymous feedback link can encourage and empower all staff to speak up without fearing repercussions.
  • Takeaway exercise: Reflect on your workplace. Are there processes that you have the power to change or are there improvements you can advocate for that would help create a more equitable experience? For example, you could suggest removing bias from your recruitment process by concealing names, ages and other identifying information on applications. You could also review your compensation structure, looking for wage inequities that may impact racialized staff and developing a strategy to close those gaps.

Encourage authenticity in your workplace

Racialized employees often feel the need to optimize the comfort of others by assimilating to the dominant culture in professional settings. This practice, known as code-switching, can have long-term consequences, including emotional exhaustion, high turnover, increased stress and decreased motivation and trust. Despite the harm that it can cause, code-switching is often used as a shield in professional settings where names, accents, hairstyles and clothing have been shown to be discriminated against.

For example, a study from Duke University found that Black women with natural hairstyles received lower scores when ranked for professionalism and competency and were less frequently recommended for interviews.

The solution involves implementing real measures that demonstrate a safe and welcoming culture and allows people to come to work as they are.

Practical tips

  • Empower your leaders to model and encourage authenticity. For example, they can say, "Wear your hair in a way that feels comfortable to you whether that’s natural or styled. Whatever makes you feel good."
  • Build cultural awareness on your teams about the diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences of their colleagues. One way we do this is by sharing information and resources about cultural celebrations throughout the year.
  • Host regular training sessions on unconscious bias to combat deep-seated discriminatory beliefs people may not be aware of. At Altis, we offer continuous training on anti-bias and unconscious bias, removing barriers in job descriptions and writing inclusive job ads. We also provide team members with case studies to help them practice and reflect on these learnings.
  • Champion inclusion as a core value of your corporate culture. In the DEI acronym, inclusion comes last, but some feel that you can’t foster diversity without first creating an inclusive culture. This may be why some prefer the acronym IDEA, where inclusion comes first, and accessibility is recognized as a key tool to support this work. By prioritizing inclusion, team members from all backgrounds will be comfortable showing up authentically and more diverse candidates will be drawn to your talent pool.

Implement equitable recruitment practices

As part of your recruitment process, assess the composition of your team at every level. What percentage of your racialized employees are in entry-level, senior leadership and C-suite roles? While you might have a diverse workforce, are you ensuring that racialized employees are given equal opportunity to advance and grow in their careers? Are you actively considering diverse candidates for new positions at senior levels?

Consider the NFL, where approximately 70% of the league's players are people of colour but there are no racialized owners and fewer than five non-white coaches. While there is diversity, opportunity isn’t equitably distributed through the ranks of the league.

When hiring, consider how you can champion diverse candidates, both internally and externally, for roles at every level.

Practical tips

  • Review and revise job descriptions to clearly define the essential qualifications and skills needed for the role and remove unnecessary requirements that may exclude diverse candidates.
    • For example, if the role does not require writing content for an external audience, remove the requirement for excellent writing skills in English, which may discourage candidates whose first language is not English from applying.
  • Don't let “cultural fit” influence hiring decisions. Instead assess which hard and soft skills a candidate can bring to the table that will lead to success in the role. Hiring for cultural fit often perpetuates the “like me” bias and leads to homogenous teams that lack diversity. When we fill roles, whether for our clients or our internal team, we prioritize “cultural add”—hiring contributors from diverse backgrounds and with varying skillsets who will contribute new perspectives rather than simply fitting the status quo.
  • Stack your hiring bench with staff from diverse backgrounds to reduce bias, ensure a greater holistic assessment of candidates and encourage more thoughtful deliberations before moving forward. If you’re looking for support with implementing equitable recruitment practices, our team is here to help.

Champion professional development for racialized team members

Statistics show that compared to the Canadian population as a whole, racialized professionals are more highly educated and yet underemployed and underpaid. Prioritize the growth of your people to narrow this gap. Make your organization’s career pathing process accessible by including it as part of your onboarding or working with team members directly to tailor personalized development plans.

Practical tips

  • Offer paid professional development for racialized team members and encourage them to surface opportunities that may be outside the traditional bounds of professional development.
    • For example, memberships in organizations and groups designed for racialized professionals can help your team members network, access mentorship and tap into tailored career advice.
  • Encourage leadership shadowing to aid in knowledge transfer and the transition of more racialized team members into leadership positions. Bonus: As senior roles become available, look to fill them with those who have participated in shadowing programs and are positioned for growth.
  • Upgrade traditional mentorship programs by enlisting sponsors. Sponsorship requires advocating on someone else’s behalf and looking out for advancement opportunities for them. While mentors provide guidance, feedback and active coaching, sponsors champion a person’s skills and talent, often leading to greater career development. Read more about the benefits of sponsorship and how to set up a program here.

Be prepared for a lifelong journey

The key to all this work is realizing that it’s a lifelong commitment, not something you toggle off when the workday is done. And keep in mind that you’re always going to be learning, evolving, and growing while you work toward creating a more equitable society.

If you’re looking for resources to get started, here are a few that Barbara recommends:

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