Is it time for HR to review how it investigates racism complaints?

Last summer, after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, there followed an array of black squares on social media demonstrating solidarity against racism; CEOs making public statements confirming their commitment to tackling racism; and many social media posts declaring allyship. But how many of these were performative, and how much change has really taken place since? 

As HR professionals we may have heard the accusation that an employee is ‘playing the race card’ when raising their concerns relating to racism. But what purpose does this statement have? 

The term itself is racist and amounts to direct race discrimination (see Royal Bank of Scotland vs Morris, M). In the 1960s it was used as a political tool to bring fear to voting for certain political parties because they embraced diversity. These days it is used as a device to silence and diminish a legitimate claim or complaint of race discrimination. 

More than half of UK employees have witnessed racism in the workplace, but only one in five have reported this to HR. Why? Lara Murray, employment lawyer at Palmers Solicitors, points out that racism is “often implied rather than overt, meaning that perpetrators may explain away their behaviour, denying that it was racially motivated. This is where the difficulty arises; proving that racial discrimination actually took place”. 

Overt racism such as name calling may be ‘easier’ to prove, whereas subtle acts like decision making, promotions, grievance outcomes or so-called racist ‘banter’ are much harder to prove. This can be an additional strain for the complainant who may not feel they can bring their authentic self to work. 

To fit in, they need to be part of the banter and accept what is perceived as casual racism or be wary of being too vocal when comments are made to avoid being seen as a troublemaker. For example, the TUC’s 2019 Racism Ruins Lives survey found more than 40 per cent of those who had raised a complaint had either been ignored or labelled as a ‘troublemaker’. It is interesting that the perpetrator is not always seen in this light.

As part of the investigative process, corporate leaders and HR professionals must look at, and review, the policies and guidelines for investigations of racism in the workplace. Can someone with no personal experience of racism or specialist training, judge on its impact? Can they really conduct an investigation and decide whether it was racially motivated? 

When we talk about power and privilege this is firmly placed in the hands of the decision makers who are often white and have never and will never experience racism so will not be able to fully appreciate the nuances of its impact. It is exhausting to continually explain what racism is and what it isn’t. 

Unconscious bias training is not enough. Businesses must commit to zero tolerance – we cannot justify someone being “a little bit racist” – you either are or you aren’t, whether it was intended or not. It is the impact of an action that can have serious consequences. So, if we are truly committed to change, we must also commit as a business to the consequences. 

The entire process for grievances must also be reviewed. As an example, having a trained diverse panel as a prerequisite for hearings to provide balance of thought and opinion. Given that many employees, according to the TUC report, choose to walk away through fear of reprisals and the impact to their mental health, is it fair that most people from ethnic minority backgrounds choose to leave their jobs when an employer fails to hold the perpetrators accountable? 

Good training of groups with protected characteristics will help support both the business and employee during the complaints process so that a fair and balanced outcome is reached. This would also avoid the many employment tribunal cases we see. 

Change is only going to take place if those in power are willing to challenge and commit to their corporate statements on diversity and walk the talk. It cannot, and should not, be performative and all employees will see through this if it is, including those from ethnic minority backgrounds. 

We must all learn (and unlearn) the deep rooted microaggressions and terminology that have infiltrated daily working life and challenge them. And we must continue to acknowledge that these inequalities exist rather than gaslight the “lived realities” of people who experience this every day – for example, the Sewell report claiming that there is “no evidence of institutional racism in the UK”. 

To enable change, we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and genuinely ask what actions have we really committed to to eliminate racism. This means questioning and challenging everything we thought we knew and making it easier to give a voice to the voiceless. To be true allies, let’s continue to be open, vulnerable, honest, non-defensive, thoughtful and focused on working together to make the workplace a better place to be and that the ‘race card’ rhetoric is completely eradicated. 

Kiran Nar is director of Emerald HR Consulting