SHRM Research Finds Need for More Awareness, Understanding of Racial Inequality

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek August 3, 2020
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​U.S. workers and HR professionals say racial discrimination exists in the workplace, but there is a vast difference in perception of how widespread it is, depending on the race of the person you talk to, according to a new report the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) released today.

Forty-nine percent of Black HR professionals think race- or ethnicity-based discrimination exists in their workplaces; only 13 percent of white HR professionals agree.

The findings from the report, The Journey to Equity and Inclusion, also show that 35 percent of Black workers say such discrimination is part of their workplace, but only 7 percent of white workers say that is the case. The data is from a survey of 1,257 people in the U.S. conducted for SHRM June 11-15 and a survey of 1,275 SHRM members conducted June 11-17.

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The report is the foundation of a new, multipronged SHRM initiative, Together Forward @Work, that launches today. The program's Blue Ribbon Commission on Racial Equity, the members of which will be announced later this week, will be charged with developing a measurable action plan that organizations can use to eliminate racism and realize greater diversity, equity and inclusion.

The report is a "call to action for HR and the business community to drive racial and social injustice from the workplace," said SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, in the report's foreword.

Among the report's key findings:

  • 46 percent of Black employees do not think their workplace is doing enough to provide career opportunities for Black employees.
  • 21 percent of white employees do not think their workplace is doing enough to provide career opportunities for Black employees.
  • 54 percent of Black employees feel their workplace is not doing enough to promote racial justice in the world.
  • 29 percent of white employees feel their workplace is not doing enough to promote racial justice in the world.

"Those more likely to suffer from discrimination tend to be more critical of their organizations' commitment to enhancing racial diversity," SHRM points out in its report.


Conversations Are Needed

One problem highlighted by the research is that organizations are not talking about racism and social injustice. More than two-thirds of organizations—67 percent—have not asked employees about their opinions on racial injustice and the protests against it that started in May.

Forty-five percent of Black workers and 30 percent of white workers said their organization discourages such discussions.

According to the research, only 19 percent of organizations have hosted town hall meetings where workers can discuss their feelings and concerns about race-related issues. Just 15 percent of organizations have had supervisors discuss and gather thoughts from their teams about racism in the workplace. One in 10 HR organizations have asked HR managers to discuss and gather thoughts from workers about race-related issues.

Many U.S. workers, though, shy away from talking about racial issues at work—38 percent of Black workers and 42 percent of white workers do not think discussing such issues in the workplace is appropriate.

And 37 percent of both white and Black workers said they find such candid conversations uncomfortable.

A most compelling finding: Almost half of Black HR professionals (47 percent) said they do not feel safe voicing their opinions about racial justice issues in the workplace, while only a little more than one-quarter of white HR professionals (28 percent) say the same.

"The findings show that there is a gap among American workers when discussing race in the workplace," said Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, SHRM's chief knowledge officer. "This is particularly telling, given that many experience sustained diversity most frequently in the workplace. Many Americans don't have sustained relationships with a person different from them until they work with them." 

Fear of saying the wrong thing often prevents people from having honest conversations about race relations, especially with people of other backgrounds, the report noted.

"For years, the business community has invested in diversity. But diversity alone isn't enough," Taylor said. "While we have progressed in making that famous American promise of equality a reality, the journey is far from over—we need true equity and inclusion. And what gives me hope is that HR knows we must strike at the root of the problem, not with trainings and policies but in and through workplace culture." 

"In the coming months, SHRM is diving even deeper into diversity, equity and inclusion to provide actionable, practical guidance for employers and employees. However, before we can act together, American workplaces must first come together and pick up the conversations about race that this nation—and the world—have put off for far too long."  

Those conversations must start by demonstrating empathy and respect, active listening and shared values. To help them understand their Black colleagues' experiences, white employees should recall a time when they were forgotten, overlooked or on the receiving end of harm that someone tried to justify, panelists said during a June 18 webinar that SHRM co-sponsored with the Association of Corporate Counsel.

Changes Are Coming

Some organizations are starting to talk about racial inequities. One-third of those surveyed have hosted or plan to host an employee meeting—such as a town hall—to discuss the stance and actions they plan to take against racial injustice, SHRM found. And 1 in 5 have allowed or plan to allow workers to take time off to join a Black Lives Matter protest. 

There is more evidence that change is underway. One-fourth of organizations surveyed are creating new policies and systems to reduce systemic and structural bias, and nearly one-third have modified, expanded or plan to change their existing policies and systems. There also is a new emphasis on training about implicit bias, with more than half of organizations teaching their employees about racial inclusion and other diversity-related topics.

"The road to diversity, equity and inclusion is littered with training programs, but its foundation rests on the principle of comfort with discomfort. Having hard conversations about once-taboo topics is the bedrock of willing change," Alonso said.

"SHRM's Together Forward @Work represents one of the most comprehensive looks at racial injustice in the workplace since the signing of Executive Order 11246, which established the Department of Labor's right to oversee nondiscriminatory and affirmative action provisions in 1965," Alonso continued. "[The initiative] brings together a collection of global business leaders, policy elites and thought leaders to have the tough conversation around racial bias and how to best ensure it never again affects the lives of Black American workers."

 

Related SHRM Articles:

Addressing Racism Starts with Having Hard, Respectful Conversations, SHRM Online, June 2020

Viewpoint: How to Be a Better Ally to Your Black Colleagues, SHRM Online, July 2020

Taking Steps to Eliminate Racism in the Workplace, SHRM Online, October 2018

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