Since George Floyd’s death and the activism work done by organizations such as Black Lives Matter, many workplaces have become interested in addressing their own racism. Despite that interest, experts say many still fall back on strategies such as diversity training and hiring practices that feel more like “checking a box” than the true anti-oppressive change experts say is needed.
Mohammed Hashim, the executive director for the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, said racism is everywhere, especially in workplaces.
“It plays itself in different ways. Some people don’t get promoted for certain things. Some people are promoted with lower expectations because of their race. Some people’s objectivity is questioned because of their race. And some people face outright racism because people in positions of power or fellow coworkers just have racist tendencies,” said Hashim, whose organization is dedicated to eliminating racism and all forms of racial discrimination in Canadian society.
A 2019 report prepared by the Environics Institute for Survey Research, in partnership with the CRRF, shows close to half surveyed reported experiencing racial discrimination themselves at some point.
It also shows 40 per cent of those surveyed witnessed racial discrimination of others in the workplace.
Another report by the Public Health Agency of Canada in 2020 references a Quebec study that found job candidates with Franco-Quebecois names were called for an interview 38.3 per cent more often than those with African names.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, these results can be explained by a tendency towards “sameness, preservation of status quo, and underlying racism,” which can lead employers to claim “lack of fit” as a justification for not hiring highly qualified racialized candidates.
Where it’s gone wrong
The spike in interest in a less racist, more diverse workplace followed the horrific images of Floyd’s death and what it represented. Whether you participated or watched, the BLM movement grew and evolved across our country and reminded Canadians that it’s time for action, and it’s time for change.
But what do action and change look like?
Marcie Hawranik, founder and president of Canadian Equity Consulting, a diversity, equity and inclusion strategy firm, warns against the “traditional” company expectations of just conducting a pre-packaged diversity training session.
“It’s more of that checking a box, you know, let’s roll out an unconscious bias training and that should be it,” she said.
It also shouldn’t be the responsibility of non-racialized human resources generalists to navigate workplace diversity without the proper know-how. Nor should a company simply allow their female or black employees to create an employee network, like an unpaid diversity leadership team that’s not supported, given money or resources.
“It just becomes a burden because it’s something that’s just [off] the side of the desk,” she said. “Relying on their employee resource group to do this, like complex, systemic change work without actually supporting them to do it.”
However, even if corporations do put money towards workplace diversity and anti-oppression, in Hashim’s experience, the approach is more of a cut a check, commit to training, commit to hiring, process. He said it’s a start, but he’d like to see more.
Don’t start with hiring
Zakeana Reid, the CEO of the Canadian Centre of Diversity and Inclusion, an agency that works to address the full picture of diversity, equity and inclusion within the workplace, agrees Euro-centric businesses have been doing it all wrong.
She said many organizations spend a lot of time and money hiring a diverse workforce that doesn’t stick. This only reinforces the belief that diversity doesn’t work.
“Hiring is not where you start. And it’s funny because so many people start there,” said Reid.
She said employers shouldn’t focus on who they’re bringing in as much as they should be focussing on the flow of employees in and out of the workplace.
Think of it this way, she said. If you have 20 per cent women working at your company compared to the 50 per cent represented in the general population, yes, you should definitely hire more women. But, if you’re not looking at how women get promoted, as well as if and when they’re leaving, then you’re missing what you might need to address.
“So if 50 per cent of your hires are women, and 75 per cent of your terminations are women, your issue isn’t hiring. It’s your environment.”
This applies to any group in which the scales of power are not in their favour, especially racialized individuals.
If a company truly wants to improve their work environment for racialized employees, Angelica Quesada, the research lead at the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights, said they need to do it with an anti-oppressive lens throughout all workplace mechanisms, from hiring to remediation.
Incorporating a less oppressive worldview might include inviting the whole team to work together on a long-term equity plan that focuses on diverse and anti-oppressive practices.
Hashim said this might involve workshops, facilitators, hiring practices, promotion schedules and a diversity evaluation that looks at who’s making decisions and how those decisions are impacting racialized people.
It starts at the top
Although the team’s input is critical for anti-oppressive change, the driving force for organizational diversity trickles down from the attitudes and beliefs of the company’s leaders.
“If you compare it to something like safety, which is also legislatively required in various organizations, to some degree or another. There are those who comply with the legislation, and there were those for whom safety matters,” Reid said.
“And when safety matters, it becomes incorporated throughout the organization, it doesn’t live on a shelf in a manual. Everybody understands that the company is committed to safety, and everybody understands their role in ensuring everyone goes home safe.”
However, Hashim is looking beyond company-level responsibility and fears that many won’t do it without a stronger government mandate.
“It’s very rare for organizations to say, we’re going to go above and beyond what we’ve committed to and try to figure out a way to make this better. It’s always come from a sense of accountability. And when you create a level of accountability, you create someone who is accountable and someone who is accountable to.”
Come as you are
But, accountability can be tricky. Hawranik said, lately, she’s found organizations are scared to start. They know they have to do something, but they don’t understand or have a background in it and don’t know where to begin.
She said, most of the time, that hesitation comes out of fear. Sometimes they don’t want their actions to come off as performative. Or they have a rap sheet full of previous discriminatory or harassment claims, and they’re scared to pop their heads up.
Other times they’re reaching out because they’ve been mandated to do so by government requirements – such as when private sector companies have to disclose their internal diversity demographics to win American contracts.
“There always seems to be this tension,” Hawranik said. “You want everyone to do this work. You don’t want to have to explain why you have to do it either. Because it is the right thing to do.”
“There’s the ideal, and then there’s the reality, we want people to move the dial, even if it’s only an inch. And incremental change is better than massive failure. [With] patience and meeting people where they’re at, [we] customize our approaches so that it will be effective for them.”
Hashim said every action to address racism helps.
“I don’t think there’s a silver bullet to end it all. I think every initiative, big or small, helps towards creating better understanding. And at the end of the day, it’s about being able to create a level of respect and dignity for everybody.”
This story appears in our March/April print issue. You can find the Calgary Journal at newsstands across the city or you can check out the digital version here.