New research conducted by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (‘VEOHC’) and compiled in a report, ‘Reporting racism: What you say matters’, indicates that racism is still a significant problem in our workplaces too. In an online survey of 227 participants, VEOHC found that racism was most commonly experienced or witnessed in the workplace. Survey respondents reported a range of experiences, including unfair treatment when applying for work and being subjected to inappropriate questions, comments and jokes.
As the title of the VEOHC report suggests, a major focus of the research was on what people do after that they have experienced or witnessed racism. Do they report it or just take it on the chin? The study found that the majority of respondents (54.6%) do the latter. One in five survey participants stated that they had not reported racism because they believed nothing would come of it. One in five participants also stated that they chose not to report racism for fear of retribution. For some employees who experience racism at work, the stakes can be high. The VEOHC study cited a recent report by the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health that found migrant or refugee women fear being deported or losing their job if they make a complaint.
It is unsurprising that VEOHC devoted a significant portion of its report to the emergence of online forums that generate racist material. The anonymity and pace of the online environment makes it easy for users to post comments and opinions that they would self-censor in a public setting. In the workplace, the fall-out from online racism can have consequences not only for the individuals involved but also for the reputation of the organisation. In 2010, for example, members of the Victoria Police were investigated in relation to a forwarded email which depicted an Indian man being electrocuted. In the original email, the police officer had described the email as a way to “‘fix’ the Indian student ‘problem’”. As the VEOHC report points out, racism at an organisational level can undermine public trust in public and private institutions and further disenfranchises victims of racism.
So what can employers do to address racism in the workplace? Most employers will already have equal opportunity and bullying policies in place that establish disciplinary consequences for race discrimination and race-based bullying in the workplace. A practical measure is workplace training for employees not just on equal opportunity, but on unconscious bias as well. Training on unconscious bias may well provide the kind of “light-bulb moment” that employees need in order to appreciate the subtle and damaging effects that racism can have in the workplace. Employers also need to ensure that they have effective and simple mechanisms for reporting racism in the workplace.
Employees need to be assured that their complaints will be taken seriously and that they will be protected from victimisation if they take a stand. A workplace that also encourages third-party reporting – that is, reporting from bystanders who witness incidents of racism – will be more effective in preventing racist behaviours from seeping into a workplace culture. Because as the VEOHRC report points out, “When we fail to respond to low-level racist incidents, [we] create an environment where this type of behaviour is tolerated, replicated and can escalate.”