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The tragic and deplorable killing of George Floyd as he whispered “I can’t breathe”, has shaken many of us and ignited a fire, which has awakened our collective consciences, on the toxic culture of racial abuse which still pervades society.

George Floyd’s death is the latest in a devastatingly familiar pattern, following those of Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others. The toxicity of racial prejudice, both overt and subtle, prevents those from ethnic minorities from moving up through the world in the same way, and the Black Lives Matter movement has inevitably sparked an outpouring of grief and rage for the disconnect between the opportunities and fates of those who are from ethnic minorities and those who are not.

Employers undeniably have a role in all this, with the power to engender change, to empower their workforce and to speak out boldly against racial injustice and prejudice. Undoubtedly, employers will rightly be reflecting on their current practices, and ruminating on what they can be doing to be part of this movement, and to affect positive and lasting change within their organisations. Many employers will of course already have strong practices in place, but, without doubt there is still work to be done to ensure that equality is deeply woven into the fabric of the workplace.    

What employers should do to deal with racism

1. Talk to your employees

Everyone is impacted by what is happening, irrespective of their race, ethnicity or nationality, because what is happening is an affront to humanity. Employers should connect with their employees, acknowledge what is happening and the fact that employees will no doubt be impacted by the movement. Do not think of this as being an unrelatable problem that belongs to America and does not apply here in the UK. As Bernadine Evaristo recently wrote, “It has always been so easy for Brits to feel morally superior in the face of the scale of America’s globally amplified racial dramas, and to ignore our very own iniquities, which tend to be more perniciously subtle, but which are no less pervasive”.

Employers should be brave enough to acknowledge that you have work to do. It is an unquestionable sign of strength to be able to look around, hold your hands up and recognise your weaknesses. There is a power in that vulnerability, which will be heard and felt by employees, and which will build trust and confidence in your organisation.

2. Give diversity a real voice within your organisation

Employers should be actively anti-racist, and go beyond tokenism. Give a voice to those from ethnic minorities, perhaps through setting up a forum in which to share stories, experience and express emotions about racial prejudice. This will allow the rest of your workforce to connect with those stories, to understand the experiences of those from ethnic minorities, and to allow for stronger relationships to develop.

Examine your corporate values, and consider how policies or decisions may impact those from ethnic minorities disproportionately, and involve ethnic minorities in those conversations.

Review your training on diversity and unconscious bias, and actively encourage and promote an environment where employees feel empowered to speak up about racism. But be mindful that training alone is not sufficient, and avoid simply paying lip service and setting up training as a tick box exercise. The commitment to tackling racism must be embedded into the ethos of your organisation.

Live your commitment to diversity, not just in the wake of this moment, but going forwards, to develop and inspire lasting change.

3. Review your recruitment practices

Discrimination at the point of recruitment is an immense barrier preventing those from ethnic minorities even getting their foot through the door, and is of course unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. Be mindful that even if you are not “actively” discriminating, there may be subtle unconscious bias, where you decide that someone might not “fit in” to the organisation because they have not shared the same experiences, which could constitute discrimination.

Consider your recruitment practices, and how you can eradicate bias at the point of recruitment, whether that is through accepting name blind CVs, using diverse interview panels or otherwise.

Broadening the diversity of your workforce can only bring positive outcomes for employers, with heightened creativity, innovation and empathy, as you’ll have input from a heterogenous group of people with wider perspectives and experiences.

An organisation which accurately represents the society that we live in, will be an attractive one to work in. This goes beyond statistics and promoting ethnic minorities within organisations, but also ensuring that culturally, your organisation is aligned to the reality of the population, which is a tapestry of colours and rich diversity.

4. Take concerns seriously

Where employees raise concerns about racial prejudice or injustice, take these seriously and investigate. There cannot be a clearer demonstration of an issue being taken seriously than by an employer properly dealing with allegations or concerns, promptly investigating them and ensuring that the employee feels heard.

There are moments in time which change the world in a breath, and I hope that this will be more than a moment, and a force for real, sustainable change, in a world which is becoming increasingly polarised, and at a time where social divides are ever more apparent. In these times, especially when we cannot hold each other, or connect with each other in a human way, we should all look out more so for our colleagues, families and friends as we confront these challenging times.

For further thoughts on the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement in the education sector, please see an article by my colleagues Katie Fudakowski and Lauren Bennet on Safeguarding children from racism and creating an anti-racist culture. Although aimed primarily at schools and other education providers, some of the practical steps outlined in the article are of wider relevance to employers more generally.

If you require further information about anything covered in this blog, please contact Shehnal Amin, or your usual contact at the firm on +44 (0)20 3375 7000.

This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

© Farrer & Co LLP, June 2020

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