Most countries use labour legislation and government policies to encourage diversity and inclusion, and to improve race relations in businesses and organisations. However, in some organisations, overt racism has been replaced by more subtle forms of discrimination, such as hostile words and gestures, passive-aggressive comments, or failing to provide equal support to employees from non-dominant groups.
These types of behaviours have been given new terms, such as “modern racism”, “aversive racism”, “ambivalent racism” and “everyday racism”. Racial inequality has a long history, is deep-rooted, and leads to both overt and subtle forms of racism in the workplace, which could heighten further racial exclusivity. As racial tensions escalate, we often look for quick, short-term ways to overcome these issues. This is not ideal, since the focus is put on isolated issues, rather than broadening the scope of investigation to the organisational and social environment, which is responsible for breeding these types of offensive societal behaviours and attitudes.
Human beings typically observe and experience their world through the lens of their own learned and conditioned behaviour, cultivated by their social environment, and bring those elements into their place of work. Former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela endorsed forgiveness and equality, and stated in his book Long Walk to Freedom: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Mandela’s perspective is similar to the Afrocentric philosophy known as ubuntu, which assumes that people share a universal bond by being inclusive and contributing to the greater good of humanity. In a world driven by materialism and personal ambition, it seems that most of humanity has lost the spirit of ubuntu. Around the world, the exclusion of certain groups from sharing in economic, educational and political development facilitated the rise of a divide among humanity, and the view of race as a social class division. This divide spilled over to the workplace, where representation of race is not equally distributed across all organisations, especially in senior and executive management positions.
Research indicates that continuous exposure to overt and covert discrimination can harm employee well-being by increasing the likelihood of various physiological and psychological problems such as headaches, high levels of absenteeism, a lack of morale and work performance, decreased self-esteem, emotional distress and disinterest. However, when an organisation develops an inclusive and racially harmonious environment, then the well-being of employees will be enhanced. Mandela’s quote gives us hope that we are not lost, but that a collective good and drive is needed to facilitate and sustain racial harmony.
Strategies for racial harmony and inclusiveness in the workplace:
- Mindset change initiatives
As Mandela said, if people can be taught to hate they can be taught to love. This means moving from traditional diversity training initiatives to more specific racial harmony workshops as learning interventions for a sense of harmony to be cultivated within individuals and groups. A racial harmony workshop would actively focus on reducing racial bias and micro-aggressions, and promote cohesion across racial groups.
- Creating awareness and mindfulness-based interventions
These interventions allow managers, groups and individuals to be aware and mindful of social and racial conflict, and develop the necessary sensitivities of being in a multicultural context. Managers in the workplace also need to be aware of their implicit and unconscious actions that promote racial biases. Mindfulness helps us to see that our racial identities are not simply given to us by others, but that we also have a hand in creating them. As such, these social constructions can also dissolve and be reshaped in the workplace towards building bonds of trust that bridge our racial differences and well-being.
- Cultural changes
Barriers to racial harmony are often embedded in cultural norms and social systems. Organisational cultures might need to be more transformative toward an inclusive and accommodating cultural orientation where diverse functional task teams and policies are established. This assists in the creation of shared memories and trust as well as nurturing acceptance, which might improve employee racial harmony and lead to overall physical and psychological well-being.
- Establishment of a transparent meritocracy system
Establish a system of rewards whereby each employee has a fair chance to succeed based on their effort and talent without bias toward any race. This can result in improved racial harmony and well-being, and the achievement of performance goals and in-role expectations.
These strategies will not guarantee racial harmony but will require the goodwill and commitment of everyone in the organisation, and will need to be monitored and evaluated. Upon reflection, they might be small stepping stones to achieving racial harmony, but they also offer the opportunity to better understand and appreciate the overt and covert challenges, opportunities and privileges presented in order to facilitate acceptance and a deeper consideration for all humanity.
By Professor Jan Alewyn Nel, Professor Nasima MH Carrim and Blessing Chabaya of the Department of Human Resource Management at the University of Pretoria.
- Author Professor Jan Alewyn Nel, Professor Nasima MH Carrim and Blessing Chabaya