Dealing with discrimination in the workplace

In the workplace, we want to maintain a professional reputation and create, nourish and build good relationships with colleagues at all levels, but what if one day you’re in a meeting or having an informal conversation and someone says something that is wrong and offensive? 

Young women taking notes in a meeting in the workplace

In light of recent events, we’ve been spending a lot of time considering how we can take meaningful day-to-day action. Of course, we’re all still learning, but as part of a diverse, healthy and respectful team at Skating Panda we’ve certainly been having some very open and frank discussions.  

According to this recent survey by ACEVO and Voice4Change, 68 per cent of people in the charity sector alone said that they had experienced, witnessed or heard stories about racism, blaming long-standing habits, practices and norms as well as a concern about saying or doing the wrong thing on race.  

Of course, it’s not just the charity sector (something the survey rightfully points out) because whatever someone’s race or ethnicity, we realised that at one time or another, we’d all been in professional or social situations where racist remarks had been made but were left unchallenged.   

We started asking ourselves why, since we consider ourselves, and each other to be confident, professional, thoughtful and conscious of what’s going on around us. Some of the answers we heard included: “It can feel so insidious so you question yourself, It’s easier to say I’ll call it out, than actually do it, especially in a room full of strangers”, I was hoping someone else would say something”, ‘I’m in a contractual situation and being paid by them so thought it was best to keep quiet…” and I’m sure they didn’t mean it like that”.   

Does any of this sound familiar?  

We concluded that sometimes finding the right words, especially in the heat of the moment, can feel impossible, so we’ve pulled some advice together that can help people handle difficult situations in the workplace 

  1. Remember that a respectful organisational culture is crucial for stamping out bias, conscious or unconscious, in the workplace. Give yourself permission to call out such behaviour, whoever is manifesting it, especially if the comment is racist and discriminatory.  
  1. It’s natural to feel annoyed or angry, so pause and ask yourself whether you can be rational enough to make a clear and informed point in a heightened, and triggered state to ensure you get the results you want. Otherwise, write down what was said and/or how you’re feeling immediately, so you have an accurate record, and can address it with them (in front of a witness if viable) when the meeting is over.  
  1. Let the person finish what they’re saying, and before speaking, ensure you are aware of your body language – uncross your arms, shoulders down, speak calmly, that kind of thing – it all aids with the delivery and if it’s calm, they’re less likely to get defensive, which should help with engagement, and listening power.  
  1. In the moment try to see them as someone who needs to generally wake up and learn before passing further judgement. That’s not to say the person, or ally, being discriminated against should take on board others feelings at expense of their own. Rather it’s identifying that there’s a crucial distinction between what they said and who they are. Sometimes people are thoughtless, they might have copied what someone else had said, or simply didn’t know it an offensive, and racist act – even more reason to have this conversation. 
  1.  Ask them ‘why’ they said what they did and suggest they repeat it for clarity. You could say: “You may not have intended it to sound the way I heard it, so please can you repeat what you said about (the comment)”.  This will give them time to reflect, the opportunity to rectify their comment, and ideally learn in the moment.  
  1. If the person who made the comment is dismissive, defensive or even angry for having been challenged, do not be drawn into a debate on the spot, ever! Rather, use it as an opportunity to talk after the meeting if you are comfortable doing so. You could say: “I would welcome the opportunity to talk to you about why I felt it wasn’t appropriate after the meeting, are you open to that?”.  Having a private conversation is still a positive step.  
  1. At no time, should you apologise for speaking out if you’ve been respectful, because it dilutes your message. What you’re doing takes courage, especially if you’re in a room (even a virtual one) full of people and it puts the issue in the front of people’s minds.  
  1. If you’re comfortable and feel it’s appropriate, lean in on any of your direct or indirect experiences and feelings to further engage them. Humanising and personalising issues always resonates with people longer, meaning they’re less likely to make the same mistake in future.  
  1. Finally, remember the burden is not on one person alone to change wider systemic bias within an organisation, but by speaking out when we can, in an organisation open to positive change, we are helping to shape the future for the better.  

We’d like to invite you to share any advice you have too… please add comments with your thoughts and tools/or experiences below.