How to tackle racism in the workplace


By Dr Linda Ronnie

In the new South Africa, we might no longer have park benches marked "Whites Only", but unfortunately the scourge of racism is still lingering in this country. 

Even 22 years after democracy, the damage of past socio-economic policies endure and people of colour are thus not only 'previously disadvantaged', they have remained in a disadvantaged state.

Inevitably, this disparity is evident in workplaces, despite rigorous employment equity legislation. According to the most recent government data, Whites still dominate at top management level constituting 62.7% of the total number of employees reported by all employers in 2013.

What does racism in the workplace look like?

While overt forms of racism are becoming increasingly uncommon in the workplace thanks to legislation, it is still pervasive - ask any person of colour working in this country. This is because racism has gone under cover and now takes a more implicit form. You see it when people tell jokes using stereotypes or senior people of colour are mistaken for junior employees. This type of implicit discrimination is systemic and is perpetuated by company policies that look perfectly neutral on the surface: for example, the imposition of work practices that favour the dominant group (such as Friday afternoon at the pub), or requiring qualifications for a job that are unnecessary (a postgraduate degree for an administrative post), or employing white people on contracts when the job is advertised as a permanent position.

How to handle racism in the workplace

One of the worst things that any organisation can do about this situation is to pretend it is not happening. And yet that still happens - a lot. Because of the subtle / implicit nature of most racial discrimination in the workplace, those affected are being told to 'not be so sensitive'; 'not everything is about race'; 'you're imagining it', etc.

Instead, organisations need to deal head on with this issue. They need to create a culture of inclusion where differences are valued. Too often organisations simply try to assimilate various cultures without acknowledging the value each individual brings.

Organisations also need to be prepared to take serious action against employees, including management, who display and enact racist behaviour. To this end, the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation, and Arbitration) has been tasked as the arbiter in discrimination complaints.

Educating employees, especially management, in terms of how to deal with racism and racist incidents rather than sweep these under the rug is also critical.

There is a cost for not doing this. Organisations should remember that beyond the obvious costs such as reputational impact, the biggest impacts are decreased employee commitment and overall productivity as a consequence of this inaction as well as staff churn. If you want to build a happy and productive team in South Africa - it has to be a diverse and inclusive one.

Dr Linda Ronnie is a senior lecturer at the UCT Graduate School of Business specialising in Managing people in organisations, organisational change and HR good practice and management.




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