Back to top Back to top
  • close


Systemic racism might be hard at work in your workplace

April 14, 2021

The Canadian flag was a prominent fixture on my backpack when I travelled Europe after university. In piazzas, cobblestone streets, castles and ancient ruins, that flag told people I was nice and I was from a country that embraces diversity, equality and inclusiveness.

I was so proud to be Canadian. And I knew I was lucky to have had the opportunities that the true north, strong and free provides. 

Later in life I came to learn how much “luckier” I was as a white, educated, middle-class woman living in Canada. My experience is much different than many others.

We pride ourselves as Canadians on three little words: Diverse. Equal. Inclusive. But do we embody those qualities as much as we think? Our history is not one to be proud of when it comes to racism and discrimination. We have failed miserably as a country in how we treated – and continue to treat – our Indigenous population. Africville is shameful. And it wasn’t until the late 1960’s that residential schools started to be abolished. The last school existed until 1996. We also need to ask why Black and Indigenous people make up almost 40% of the prison population while comprising less than 10% of the general population.

Canadians don’t like to admit it but the hard truth is: racism and discrimination remain entrenched in Canadian society. Including in our workplaces. But we can change it.

When we hear the terms “racist” or “racism” we sometimes envision a white supremacist who aggressively targets people of colour. But racism and discrimination often aren’t so blatant. Racism and discrimination at work happen in different ways. It can be direct or indirect. Or, a rule or practice can be neutral on its face but unintentionally single out a group protected by the Human Rights Code resulting in unequal treatment. This is called constructive or adverse effect discrimination or systemic racism.

This latter form of racism and discrimination is most common. And it’s the hardest to detect. It’s often subtle rather than overt, can be explained away by reasonable explanations and is usually unintentional.

And racism and discrimination increase with intersectionality. Racialized employees who are women, members of the LGBTQ2S+ community, have a disability or belong to a particular religious group, for example, are more likely to experience racism and discrimination.  

Discrimination requires that race be only one factor in the negative treatment; not the factor.

Ensuring that systemic racism is not weaving its way into your organization requires having objective criteria and processes that are applied consistently. Here are some ways systemic racism creeps into the workplace and creates unintentional barriers. And some ways to counter it:

  • Informal networks for recruitment and promotions – Using personal networks like company sports teams, social relationships and word-of-mouth referrals to recruit for vacancies often leads to discrimination. These informal networks tend to exclude those who do not share the same ethno/racial characteristics as the person making the recruitment or promotion decisions.
  • Over-reliance on or poorly defined culture fit – Unless the definition of fit is clearly defined and tied to the organization’s values, bias can creep into the process. Since we tend to like people who are similar to us, the demographic makeup of the individuals doing the hiring/promotions can end up simply being replicated.
  • Lack of appropriate mentoring – Denial of mentoring or developmental opportunities that have been made available to others is a major barrier to advancement. And informal mentoring where leaders select employees to “take under their wing” or provide mentorship in social settings outside work can result in racialized employees being marginalized.
  • Limited career advancement – Racialized individuals are still largely concentrated in lower level positions within organizations and upward mobility continues to be a problem. Systems for training, promotion and advancement often create unintended barriers.
  • Lack of a formal process for promotion – Subjective trumps objective criteria in organizations that rely on managers to identify people who are “promotable”. It can result in managers encouraging those who they like or with whom they share common traits or interests to apply for higher-level jobs. Or favourite employees may be given assistance in preparing for the selection process. As a result, other eligible employees are not given equal opportunity, support or consideration.
  • Inflated job requirements – For example, asking for a graduate degree when an undergraduate degree is sufficient, requiring “Canadian experience” or specifying desirable personality traits, e.g., “assertiveness” that negatively impact people based on different cultural norms.
  • Differential management practices – Excessive monitoring and documentation of performance or deviation from written policies or standard practices when dealing with a racialized employee. Practices should be applied fairly and consistently and be based on legitimate and warranted business needs and factors.
  • Disproportionate disciplinary treatment – Racial profiling and bias exist at work: racialized employees are shown to be more likely to be subject to discipline. This can include treating normal differences of opinion as confrontational or insubordinate when they involve racialized employees or characterizing normal communication from racialized employees as rude or aggressive. It can also be seen in penalizing a racialized employee for failing to get along with a co-worker or manager when one of the reasons for the tension is the colleagues’ racially discriminatory attitudes.
  • Commit to diversity, equity and inclusion – A commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion at all levels of the organization is essential to successfully countering systemic racism. Some make the commitment primarily for the benefits to the organization – and research shows there are many – but organizations that also take a moral and ethical stand reap greater rewards and are a catalyst for more positive change both inside and outside the organization.
  • Understand the terms – Diversity is often used to describe people based on race. But diversity at work is a relational concept that speaks to differences among people in the workplace, which transcends race. Inclusion is about eliminating barriers to full participation at work. It means designing spaces, policies and practices that are inclusive for everyone. And equity is not equality. Equality would have us treat everyone the same. But we are all different. Equity recognizes that we all need different kinds of support based on our individual needs, experiences and opportunities.
  • Open the conversation – People tend to shy away from conversations about race. But by not talking about it, we make the topic uncomfortable and taboo. And we lose a valuable opportunity to understand and to give people a voice for sharing their personal experiences, both good and bad. Leaders can make the conversation visible by leading by example through formal and informal discussions and allowing people to share and ask questions without censorship, judgement or reprisal.

Eliminating systemic racism requires a thorough examination of policies and practices using an anti-oppression lens to ensure race isn’t factoring negatively into decisions and workplace processes, even inadvertently. Develop equity policies inclusive of marginalized groups and review the hiring, promotion and retention processes with diverse representation from racialized groups. Aim for a balanced reflection of racialized employees within senior roles and train staff in diversity, equity and inclusion and challenges facing racialized employees at work.

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.
~ Barack Obama ~