How to take action on the bullying and harassment prevalent in UK workplaces

Sandra Kerr OBE, Business in the Community Race Equality Director, writes of her concern over the unacceptable statistics surrounding racial bullying and harassment. 

Last week the TUC reported that one in three BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) people in the UK had been racially abused or have witnessed racist abuse since the Brexit vote last summer. The TUC is also calling for the government to bring in rules about third-party harassment to protect workers who deal with the public, develop a full race equality strategy and make private sector companies responsible for promoting equal treatment as well as public sector organisations.

I am shocked and saddened by these findings, but sadly not surprised. Our ‘Equality, Diversity and Racism in the Workplace’ review analysed over 5,000 comments on racial harassment and bullying and leadership at work from our Race at Work survey, and found that racism remains a persistent feature of work in Britain. We also found that 30% of employees who had experienced or witnessed racial harassment or bullying at work had done so in the last year. Although our research was conducted before the referendum, the fact that the situation appears to have worsened in the last few months is a significant cause for concern.

Employers need to take racial bullying and harassment seriously because it is likely to significantly impact their organisations. Our findings show that experiencing and/or witnessing racial bullying and harassment impacts BAME employees in a number of ways, including affecting their mental health – which could lead to lost productivity. Many BAME employees also reported reduced opportunities for training and career progression, and in some cases left their jobs as a direct response to experiencing racism. That is a loss of talent that employers cannot afford in an increasingly diverse global market.

With McKinsey research showing that the top quartile of ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to financially outperform the bottom quartile. The recent McGregor-Smith Review into Race in the Workplace identified a potential boost of £24bn to the UK economy if employers get race equality in the workplace right.  It’s clear that tackling workplace racism needs leadership, commitment and urgent action from employers.  So what can responsible businesses do to address it?

We encourage all employers to take the following steps:

  • Set the tone from the top by making a senior leader responsible for ensuring there is an anti-racism, equality and diversity policy in place and sharing this with employees, clients, customers and suppliers. This should include a zero-tolerance policy on racial bullying and harassment and being clear that reports will be taken seriously.
  • Include a commitment to equality and diversity in procurement agreements with clients and external contractors.
  • Making equality and diversity training, including unconscious bias training, mandatory for all managers and staff involved in recruitment and progression processes.
  • Having ethnically diverse interview panels wherever possible.
  • Monitoring the diversity of employees at each stage of the recruitment and progression process in order to identify any gaps and take action to address them.
  • Include structural reporting such as pay, bonuses and levels of recruitment and progression in equality and diversity audits.
  • Establish and sponsor ethnic minority employee networks to create ‘safe spaces’ and collectively address racial inequality within the organisation.

There is a great deal of work to be done in this area – but that makes it even more crucial for employers to act now. By making it clear that they take racial bullying and harassment, they will show their leadership in this area and create diverse, inclusive workplaces at every level. We have launched a Best 100 Employers for Race in the UK listing where we are calling on those employers who are already taking action to put their hands up as an example of good practice to others.