Let’s tackle racism in the workplace at source

People from minorities can experience 'imposter syndrome' at work.
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Racism is embedded deep in our society, which is why tackling it effectively means going beyond tweaking recruitment. This means recognising cumulative bias from early education onwards, writes Nic Hammarling.

The vast majority of us would like to think that racism no longer has a place in our society.

It’s certainly true that overt, explicit forms of racism are now significantly less common than they once were. However, racism is far from a thing of the past. Instead, it has evolved to survive in more subtle forms, going largely unopposed, sometimes unrecognised, but very much still present.

We are starting to open our eyes to this change. Whether it be John Barnes speaking about the severe shortage of managerial opportunities for black footballers or a pair of black ballerinas joining Stormzy on Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage to illustrate the discrimination that black dancers have historically faced, we are gradually becoming more aware of the existence of modern racism.

But while this increased awareness is encouraging, the trap that we often fall into is trying to resolve each example of modern racism in isolation. I read recently, for example, that a new campaign has been launched to make university applications anonymous, in order to boost the number of black entrants.

The reality – and the mindset that we must adjust our thinking to – is that every instance of inequality is connected, with each one paving the way for the next. So, it’s not enough to change the university application process. We need to address the racism that students face in school before they even apply to university, while also combatting the racism students face during their time in higher education, then onto their experiences when applying for jobs and finally in the workplace itself.

The term I use to describe this is cumulative bias – the idea that it’s not enough to concentrate on one thing here and another there; we have to understand the entire trajectory – and it’s a concept that we must all be aware of in order to fully overcome modern racism.

School education

With the recent publication of several investigations and personal accounts of racism in UK universities, there has been a great deal of conversation in the media about the lack of opportunity for black students at university. But young black people won’t have their first experience of racism in the lecture hall when they arrive at university. We need to go back even further.

When children are still very young, good quality education and motivated teachers have a significant impact on their educational success. What we need to recognise though, is that not all children have access to these luxuries. For example, one-in-five teachers said in a recent study that nothing would persuade them to apply for a job at a low-performing disadvantaged school, while another found that disadvantaged pupils are less likely to take Key Stage 1 Sats tests than their advantaged peers.

Of course, these figures are shocking. But what we must acknowledge, specifically, is how educational experiences differ for black and ethnic minority and white children.

A fundamental part of this problem is the ambition of teachers, and their expectations of different pupils. Various pieces of research have shown that a pupil’s demographic background will affect the way they are disciplined at school, how their work is assessed, and the academic ability set that they are put in. If a black student receives a C-grade in maths, for example, a teacher’s response is often that they are doing well. If an Asian student achieves a C-grade in maths though, the response is that they can do better.

We have to acknowledge that even at this early stage, we are prone to making entirely stereotypical assumptions of what to expect from different people, and that these expectations kick-start the trajectory of cumulative bias.

Higher education

The connotations which children are saddled with in school has a knock-on effect on their success in higher education. It can be incredibly difficult for students from a black/ethnic minority background to successfully apply to the UK’s most prestigious academic institutions, with research showing that black students are half as likely as white students to be offered a place at Russell Group universities.

In many cases, this kind of prejudice will be present throughout their entire academic career, with black students proving more likely to transfer to other institutions during their course. This is usually because they lack a sense of belonging; a factor which is critical to educational attainment.

In a university setting, a sense of belonging might include a student feeling their lecturers pick up on their comments during tutorials or that their professors, curriculum or reading list reflect their own background. These things might seem small, but they are critical when it comes to making sure students feel they belong at university.

Finally, and perhaps most shocking, we can see evidence of a fundamentally unacceptable black attainment gap, whereby a disproportionate number of black students graduate with worse degrees than their white classmates.


The working world is rife with inequality. Indeed, the process of even entering the workplace can be a considerable struggle for black workers. Six months after leaving university, black graduates are almost twice as likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts, and those that are employed have to send, on average, 60% more job applications than their white counterparts before receiving a positive response from employers.

The discrimination doesn’t end here, though. Once they have entered the workplace, our own research here at Pearn Kandola has found that nearly half (46%) of black and ethnic minority employees feel their colleagues treat them differently and that three-in-five (59%) feel their colleagues make assumptions about their ability, character or behaviour based on their skin colour.

To drive this prejudice home, white employees are three times more likely to have access to both confidential information and senior-level mentors, giving them more opportunity to develop, get noticed and advance to the most influential roles with an organisation. Black employees, on the other hand, are a third more likely to be in insecure work or even to be affected by redundancy processes.

Perhaps the most tangible evidence of this inequality, though many of us are unaware even of its existence, is the ethnicity pay gap. Earlier this year, the Office for National Statistics released its first official figures on Britain’s ethnicity pay gap, revealing that white employees earn, on average, 3.8% more than their black colleagues. In reality, however, this figure is most likely a significant underestimate.

It’s true that there is some progress being made on this front, with the government currently consulting on new legislation that will mandate businesses to report their ethnicity pay gaps in the same way as they must now do with their gender gaps and Labour promising mandatory reporting.

A call to arms

It’s not enough to tackle racism one step at a time. We must identify, recognise and tackle it at every step along the way; from addressing the underperformance of inner-city schools, to mandating employers to report on their ethnicity pay gaps. We have to recognise that each and every interaction we have with black students, colleagues and employees will contribute towards a cumulative experience that determines whether they feel that they belong, are included and are valued.

It’s not a discreet problem, and we must all understand that what we might feel are small decisions or interactions can have a severe impact. We need to recognise how we can – albeit inadvertently – become part of the problem. Only then can we tackle this cumulative bias.

Nic Hammarling

About Nic Hammarling

Nic Hammarling is head of diversity at Pearn Kandola

2 Responses to Let’s tackle racism in the workplace at source

  1. Avatar
    tom 18 Jun 2020 at 5:41 pm #

    Whilst racism of various kinds still exists there should also be recognition that some of this constant use of ´racism´ as a reason for all that happens to you, is a sense of victimhood which does no one-black or white any favours. In fact, I only recognise one race-homo sapiens-humans-of various skin tones. Even accepting the inaccurate use of the term race to describe humans of diverse shades of skin tone, there is need to differentiate the deep south of the USA from the UK, for example-unlike some #Black Lives matter demonstrators. So although the 2017 Home office report on deaths in police custody in the UK shows that of the 238 deaths recorded only 6% were Black people whereas 87% were white and the rest of different ´race´or ethnicity. Continually seeking reasons or excuses for not achieving is not a good mindset to embark upon a career with. Not seeing people of your background is not unknown for working class graduates, not just ethnic minorities. Simply look at composition of ex-public schoolboys in parliament-although, surprise, surprise, there are also significant numbers of BAME MPs .
    However, I still hear actors bemoaning the lack of black roles yet, there have been large numbers of very successful black roles in film, TV and theatre. Think Sir Lenny Henry, Sir Trevor MacDonald, Idris Elba and many others in the USA and elsewhere. Shakespeare even wrote one or two roles suitable for black actors-though it did take a long time for them to use any it is true.
    Rationally, few graduates-of any colour or background – are likely to want to work in euphemistically-described ¨disadvantaged areas¨ because quite simply, it is harder work than working in less disadvantaged areas, so unless you have a mission to help the less fortunate, it is not very motivating to seek work in poor areas. So maybe these areas should get a special bonus to attract ´good´ teachers. You also refer to research on this and that in the article but give no details of what, when, where, who carried out the research or was being studied so comment on that is not possible.

    • Avatar
      Michael 24 Jun 2020 at 4:32 pm #

      “In fact, I only recognise one race-homo sapiens-humans-of various skin tones”. A perfect example here of the “one race”, aka “All Lives Matter”, positioning which fundamentally misses the point and fails to appreciate the very real adverse treatment disproportionately affecting BAME, and especially Black, individuals in many aspects of life in the UK. If the author of that comment, and those like him, took just a moment of their time to truly recognising these issues, rather than seeking to refute or downplay their significance, we might make greater progress. Until then, at least we can look to Sir Lenny, Trevor, and Idris for inspiration…

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