Workplaces are commonly characterised by the diversity of team members in terms of race, gender, consciousness and a few other dimensions.
Diversity of some form will be present even in teams that are made up of close organisational communities who share race and religion and even if they are of the same gender.
It is incumbent on the organisation to uproot all forms of discrimination that could manifest to ensure that the organisation’s people cordially interact for optimum performance. One of the most elusive forms of discrimination is that based on race.
Racial discrimination goes in all directions, the minority race being segregated by the majority race and conversely the majority being segregated by the minority.
Within the same race, there is a secondary layer of racism, thus ethnic intolerance; which prejudice based on ethnic origin. I will not dwell actual events of racism, but would rather focus on how we can manage racism as a form of discrimination that happens in the workplace.
It is important for organisations to recognise that race is a permanent feature of one’s being that cannot be changed.
The persons whose race is being segregated against cannot change their physical make-up; which is their skin colour. It is important to note that to be racially prejudiced means to exhibit an unfavourable attitude toward a person or group of people, based on skin colour or ethnicity.
When this form of prejudice is not controlled in an organisation, it can lead to racism, or inappropriate comments and unfair treatment. Racism is illegal under most employment laws around the globe; locally our law lists as unlawful, the discrimination of employees on the basis of their race, among other forms of prohibited discrimination.
It is imperative for an organisation to take steps to prevent racial discrimination, as not only does productivity and team morale get negatively affected by racism, but the organisation could be legally liable for not creating a “discrimination free” workplace for the employees who get segregated.
Organisations should communicate a strong message to employees that there will be no tolerance for racism and ethnic intolerance and false accusations of such. Victims of these forms of segregation should be encouraged to speak openly about their experiences so that the organisation can investigate their claims.
In the event of claims of either ethnic intolerance or racism; incidents should be investigated immediately. In the event that the claims are valid, the disciplinary or grievance procedures should be invoked. Always remember that the perpetrators of such discrimination do expose the organisation to law-suits over and above the poisining of the organisational climate.
Organisations should ensure they have policies and procedures in place aimed at combating ethnical and racial discrimination in the workplace.
Such policies and procedures should incorporate action plans detailing the measures that the organisation would undertake to provide a non-discriminatory workplace.
All team members of the organisation should subscribe to the organisation’s anti-racism and anti-ethnic intolerance policies so that they are fully aware of the risks of engaging in such segregatory behaviour.
It is foolish for an organisation to bury their head in the sand and deny the existence of such segregation in their midst. For as long as people of a same race or same ethnicity do hang out together in a group that shows racial or ethnicity affinity, segregation will remain a danger in your organisation.
Just do a self-test; you can keep the result confidential. Check the diversity of the people that you socialise with outside work; do they show a mix of races and ethnicity when you come together in a group.
Next time you are at a golf course, check the groups that will gather to drink in the clubhouse, establish if the groups are not segregated according to race and at time ethnicity.
I have noticed that even at professional corporate events, when it is time to social, people drift into “corners” to chat with people of their race; ethnicity would also play a part especially when the language aspect gets considerations.
People will almost always congregate with those who are like them; so it does not pay to ignore racism and ethnicity in the workplace. You may want to say, “So what are talking about ..?” Here is a line of thought; the people you hang around with become closer to you than those you infrequently interact with.
One’s perception of colleagues will definitely be affected by how often they interact with them. The ones one does not interact often with will remain behind a veil; thus there is little familiarity of each other.
When decisions are made about colleagues, both consciously and unconsciously, the perceptions built from frequent/ infrequent interactions will colour the perception one has of the colleagues.
To counter the interaction frequency and naturally group drifts, an organisation should aim to bring diversity in teams. This can be achieved by making conscious decisions about the social profile of the ideal next hire that would bring diversity to an existing team.
In neighbouring South Africa, the organisational teams’ diversity is enforced by the Employment Equity legislation and the mandatory reporting to the authorities stating the levels of employees’ diversity in terms of race and gender. While other countries would not have such purposive legislation, it would be important for organisations to take purposive steps to bring diversity into their teams.
There are instances where particular organisations’ teams gradually move towards the population dominance of one race or ethnicity group over time.
The reason that this happens is usually connected to the personal agendas of persons responsible for hiring new employees into those teams. The prevalence of such structure of teams may point to other covert problems such as nepotism in the hiring process.
The issue of racism and ethnic intolerance is a double edged sword that needs to be addressed on two levels: both by upholding those subjected to it and by confronting those who commit it.
Organisations should realise that segregation can also involve the people outside the organisation with whom the organisation dose business such as suppliers and customers.
Your team members should be protected against any discrimination that may be perpetrated by the customers; it is not part of good customer service to put up with discriminatory remarks from a customer.
While it is so important to address the effects of racism on your team, the leadership should you have crucial confrontations with the perpetrators address their behaviour, irrespective of whether these are internal or external to the organisation.
Racial and ethnical segregation in the workplace is a problem that will require ongoing attention and a series of conversations and confrontations as we seek to undo do many years of social programming and history.
When left unattended, covert segregation undermines the confidence and ultimately ability to perform within the victims.
Most of society is predisposed to racial and ethnical segregation because of the visible colour of our skins, the texture of our hair, the colour of our eyes, our different languages and our diversity of cultures.
An organisation can choose to be divided along the various social dimensions with the consequences of reduced morale, reduced productivity and eventually legal liability. However, an organisation can choose to introduce and manage diversity within its team and benefit from the richness of different perspectives when dealing with the business issues at hand.
Ignoring taking steps to purposively introduce and manage diversity is like ignoring a smouldering fire that is burning a bale of cotton, the process is smokeless yet it destroys everything.
Mandela once said “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
The leadership can teach their team members to accept that there is richness in diversity by purposively introducing and managing diversity.
I will close with the famous words in Madiba’s defence statement during the Rivonia Trial, 1964, which he also repeated during the closing of his speech delivered in Cape Town on the day he was released from prison 27 years later, on 11 February 1990.
Cherish “discrimination free organisations”, introduce and manage diversity.
Sam Hlabati is a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP®) and a Global Remuneration Professional (GRP®). E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter handle; @samhlabati