How do we normalise standing up against racism and bias at work?

The allegations of racism made by Azeem Rafiq against current and former members of Yorkshire County Cricket Club are deeply troubling. Likewise, so are the anti-Semitic tweets posted by Rafiq 10 years ago that have subsequently emerged.

Both these revelations shone a stark light on the reality of modern racism and discrimination, not just in sport, but in our wider society, and how often this goes unchallenged.

For too long people have been allowed to make biased remarks under the guise of banter. I’ve seen first-hand how this has impacted countless British Asians throughout the pandemic.

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During our research into anti-Asian prejudice, dozens of those we spoke to said they’d been subjected to racist comments at work which were seemingly meant as ‘jokes’. Let’s be clear: racism is not a laughing matter.

And this isn’t an isolated case. In a study carried out by my fellow psychologists at Pearn Kandola, it was found that over half (52%) of Brits have observed racist behaviour at work.

Sadly, most of this goes unreported, often due to a fear of negative consequences or simply not knowing who to speak to.

All of us who witness racist behaviour are bystanders. But it’s our choice as to whether we’re a passive bystander or an active bystander.

Passive bystanders are those who witness a behaviour but do nothing about it. Active bystanders choose to act, challenging the remark or behaviour in an attempt to prevent it from happening again.

Being an active bystander is a crucial part of eliminating racism from our workplaces and society as a whole. By challenging racist behaviours and remarks, we send out a strong signal that this sort of behaviour won’t be tolerated. This then creates expectations about what is and isn’t okay. When we don’t challenge it, there’s a real danger that the behaviour becomes normalised.


Tips on how to be an active bystander

There are a variety of ways that bystanders can take an active stance against instances of racism and discrimination in the workplace.

These actions vary in the level of involvement required for the bystander to intervene, giving them options for how to address these instances as and when they happen.

Broadly speaking, there are four types of intervention that active bystanders can choose to use:

Distraction Since it isn’t possible to intervene directly in every instance of racism or bias, bystanders can choose to divert the subject as a way of cutting off the interaction.

Delegation Employees can report the instance to a colleague of higher authority, ensuring that action is being taken against the perpetrator without creating a more involved scenario around the racism or bias.

Delay Bystanders can choose to delay intervention until after the interaction is over, to avoid escalating the situation.

Direct Bystanders can intervene upon the situation directly with 'I' statements that reflect their feelings about the interaction and can bring it to a close.

When it comes to deciding which level of intervention is needed, always remember that some action is better than none when it comes to challenging discriminative behaviour in the workplace.


Challenge your thoughts

Challenging bias and becoming an active bystander in the workplace also involves internal work and personal reflection.

Retraining internal dialogue around instances of racism in the workplace can make a significant difference to how employees react to their colleagues being mistreated – and can lead to faster and more frequent resolution.

In an environment where combating instances of racism has not yet been normalised, internal bystanders’ internal dialogue often follows 'Did I hear that correctly?' or 'Is there something I don’t know about their relationship?'

This is a damaging style of internal dialogue as it prevents the bystander from stepping in and taking a strategic form of intervention.

Confronting the person making racist comments or behaving in a biased way is the most likely way of achieving a feeling of resolution for both the bystander and the person on the receiving end of this bias.


The role of management in tackling racism

Of course, the responsibility doesn’t just fall on the active bystander in the moment. Senior management have a part to play in ensuring that intervention is an ingrained part of company culture.

Leaders should actively encourage their employees to be active bystanders by creating an open dialogue in which people feel safe to speak out.

One of the ways they can achieve this is through a management tactic known as seed sowing.

This involves managers and other executive-level staff members discussing being an active bystander during internal meetings and within other internal communications.

Managers can even take this exercise a step further by asking employees to consider hypothetical situations. For example: what would our thoughts be if we saw this behaviour on the news? This kind of practice allows staff members to hone their skills of being an active bystander and understand their preferred methods of intervention.

Staff in higher positions can work being an active bystander into the framework of their organisation’s policy and should communicate this to their wider teams.


Creating an active bystander environment and culture

As we work towards a more diverse and inclusive society in general, organisations have a responsibility to be aware of the interactions that occur between their staff members – especially if these interactions can be damaging or harmful to a person’s wellbeing or the wider company culture. 

By incorporating active bystander practices into workplace policy, employers can ensure that all their staff are afforded the same opportunities and treatment in their work environment.

It is crucial that all employees understand how to be an active bystander going forward, so that we can build a workforce that celebrates all ethnic, racial, and sexual backgrounds and orientations.


Bailey Bell is a psychologist at diversity and inclusion consultancy Pearn Kandola


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