How can employers and managers tackle racial discrimination in the workplace and encourage people to speak up?

18 August 2020

As a firm, we have had many discussions about Black Lives Matter and how we can make a difference to the movement. In the eighth blog in our series, Moira and Özlem talk about how employers and managers can tackle racial discrimination in the workplace and encourage people to speak up.


As recent events have shown, race discrimination and lack of diversity in many professions and workplaces is still very much a reality, even in today’s world.  Tackling this issue in the workplace is not easy and, until recently, some employers might perhaps have tried to avoid doing so unless faced with an obvious issue or complaint.  However, this state of affairs can no longer be the case; employers and managers must now be prepared to take action against racism and encourage others to speak up.

The issue of race and ethnic diversity has come to the fore in recent months following the killing of George Floyd by police officers in America and the increased attention to the Black Lives Matter movement it triggered.  Although that was a particularly shocking incident, the truth is that systemic (often unconscious) race discrimination remains pervasive in society and in the workplace.

Discrimination in the workplace can be (and often is) in the form of micro-aggressions which, although subtle, are no less serious or acceptable, as they play a huge part in sustaining systemic racism and must be called out.

People are often reluctant to speak up for fear of being seen as a “troublemaker” and being subjected to victimisation as a result.  The workplace culture and environment may be one that does not encourage people to come forward with concerns regarding race discrimination, or to have open dialogue about such matters.  This fear is compounded by stories in the press of people being subjected to unfavourable treatment for speaking out.  Stories such as those involving Munroe Bergdorf – L’Oreal’s first transgender model – who was dropped by L’Oreal in 2017 for comments she made on social media about racism (although she received an apology and re-joined L’Oreal in June this year).

People may therefore try to ignore issues and leave the place of employment without explaining the true reason for their departure, resulting in lost talent for the employer.  Ultimately, the failure to speak up means that issues involving race discrimination can go unnoticed and not be addressed.  

The legal framework for tackling discrimination in the workplace is in place.  The Equality Act 2010 prohibits direct and indirect discrimination, victimisation and harassment on grounds of race. Those who speak up and raise complaints about discrimination are protected by the anti-victimisation provisions (which prohibit subjecting someone to a detriment because they have made allegations of discrimination) and whistleblowing laws (which prohibit subjecting a person who has raised concerns of wrongdoing to a detriment).

The issue therefore seems to be about implementation and the statistics show that we are a long way off where we should ideally be.  In June 2020, it was reported that just eleven of “Big Four” accounting firms' 3,000 partners are black.  It was also reported that a survey by Business in the Community (BITC) found that 1.5% of senior managers, directors and officials in the UK are black.  Employers must do better.

Here are our practical suggestions for employers and managers to facilitate speaking up about racism and move towards eliminating racial discrimination in the workplace:

What can be done?

  • Lead by example:  Be and encourage all your managers – from the top down – to be a visible and vocal BAME ally (our Senior Partner, Stephen Parkinson, recently wrote about what this entails) and anti-racist, calling out unacceptable behaviour whenever it occurs.
  • Address prejudice:  Ensure your organisation has a zero-tolerance stance against prejudice and systems in place to address instances of unacceptable behaviour. 



  • Have conversations about race: Talk about race and ethnicity, discrimination, diversity and inclusion at management level.  Promote and encourage staff to do the same, perhaps by establishing a BAME committee which can organise gatherings to facilitate this, as well as other activities to raise awareness of racism.  Conversations about race may be uncomfortable and employees may have conflicting views.  Some may be nervous about sharing their views.  The key is to emphasise conversation, as opposed to confrontation.  Relations between employees need not be harmed as long as conversations take place in an open environment in which mutuality of respect is paramount and people are able to challenge each other’s views in a conversational setting.
  • Clear policies and procedures: Have an equal opportunities policy and clear disciplinary and grievance and whistleblowing policies in place which are easily accessible and properly implemented.  Ensure you make it absolutely clear that discrimination, victimisation or harassment of any kind on grounds of race will not be tolerated, nor will subjecting people to detriment because they have raised concerns.  Clearly articulate to your staff who they can contact with any concerns and how they will be addressed. 
  • Training and education:  Provide diversity and unconscious bias training to managers and staff of all levels.  Appoint a member of the management team to be a BAME ally who can play a leading role in your company’s initiatives.  Educate yourself and your employees on issues regarding race.  Education is not limited to training and need not be costly.  There are many free, publicly available resources including videos, podcasts, articles and reading lists you can share with your employees.  Also encourage people to share their own stories and experiences – doing so is an empowering way of awakening people’s consciousness to the problem of discrimination in society (it’s more powerful to hear about the experiences of someone you know and work with, as opposed to those of a complete stranger). 
  • Have visible and accessible support networks: To reiterate, consider establishing a BAME committee in your workplace to take responsibility for driving initiatives on the matter of race.  Appoint a member of management to act as BAME ally and to oversee this and also to be the initial point of contact for employees to speak to about any concerns they have regarding race discrimination.  Also consider appointing members of management from a BAME background to act as mentors to provide support to BAME employees at lower levels within the organisation. 
  • Donate money and time:  Donate money to anti-racism charities, or help organise sponsored activities with your workforce to do so (Kingsley Napley recently undertook a virtual sporting weekend to raise money for the anti-racism education charity, ‘Show Racism The Red Card’ (you can still sponsor us!)). Also commit your own time to the initiatives you set up; it’s one thing to provide a space for your employees to have conversations about race, but quite another to be involved in those conversations yourself, showing a genuine interest and commitment to the matter.
  • Check in with your staff:  Conduct surveys and polls with your employees asking them about their well-being and how they feel about the culture in your organisation.  Do they feel able to have open conversations about race and racism?  Do they feel comfortable about speaking up?  Do they know the routes available to them for doing so? 
  • Take action:  Ensure you take prompt action to address all complaints and concerns about racism.  Your internal procedures must also be transparent.


In summary, tackling race discrimination in the workplace is not an easy matter.  Neither is talking about race.  However, both must be done if we are to improve racial diversity in our workplaces and stamp out racism.  Kingsley Napley has a wealth of experience in assisting employers in drafting and implementing workplace policies and procedures and can advise and support you in addressing the matters highlighted above.


As a firm, we have had many discussions about Black Lives Matter and how we can make a difference to the movement. We wanted to do more than just put out a statement of support, we wanted to take substantive action to address the inequalities faced by Black people and other ethnic minorities. Over the coming weeks, we will be publishing a series of blogs from our varying practice areas highlighting what we are doing, how you can make a difference and shining a light on the issues.

Our Diversity and Inclusion group is working hard with Human Resources and the Management Team to effect change through methods such as training and reviewing recruitment practices.  We have implemented a lot of change but we recognise we have more to do and we are always looking to make improvements as a firm.  We all have respective roles to play in advocating for issues of inequality and we hope our blogs give you some inspiration as to how you can make a change.


Further Information

If you would like any further information or advice about the issues explored in this blog, please contact Moira Campbell or another member of our employment team.


About the Authors

Moira is an experienced employment solicitor. She has successfully represented both employers and employees at the employment tribunal. She regularly advises clients pursuing and defending claims for unfair dismissal, discrimination and whistleblowing

Özlem is a Professional Support Lawyer in our Employment Team.  She is very experienced in giving training talks on topical employment law issues and, as a member of the Employment Lawyers' Association (ELA), has participated in preparing ELA’s response to Government consultations on various issues. 


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