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Why Many Black Workers Don't Want to Return to the Office

A beautiful young black ethnicity female business woman going back to the office after lockdown

Leron Barton has experienced racial microaggressions throughout his career.

In an article for Slate, Barton described how his co-workers routinely viewed him and other Black employees as the "experts" on anything related to African American culture. His credentials were consistently questioned by others. If sirens blared nearby, someone would joke that the police were coming to arrest him.

These experiences nearly stopped while working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Looking back on those jobs," he pondered, "I wonder: How many racist scenarios, comments and situations would I have avoided enduring if I didn't need to come into the office?"

While employers nationwide are requiring employees to return to the office, a survey by research firm Future Forum of more than 10,000 knowledge workers across the globe revealed that just 3 percent of Black white-collar employees wanted to return to full-time in-office work, compared with 21 percent of white workers.

Buzzfeed News found that many employees of color were anxious about returning to the office due to subtle racism that often pervades office life. Of the 80 respondents to an informal survey, many said that working remotely provided a reprieve from having to conform to "white corporate culture, hearing colleagues make racist comments, or feeling othered and professionally and socially left out."

Janice Gassam Asare, a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant and public speaker in New York City, said mandating employees to return to the office is a hard sell for many employees—particularly employees of color who may be the "only" in their workplace.

"Being remote provides a shield from the harm that is often experienced by nonwhite employees at the hands of their white counterparts," she said.

Examples of Racial Microaggressions at Work

2020 Gallup poll revealed that Black Americans report experiencing negative treatment that falls under the broad category of microaggressions in their day-to-day lives more often than any other group. Among Black adults in the past year:

  • 32 percent said people have often or very often acted as if they were "better than you," compared with 10 percent of white adults.
  • 25 percent said people often or very often have acted as if "you were not smart," compared with 5 percent of white adults.
  • 22 percent said they have often or very often experienced people treating them with less courtesy than others, compared with 4 percent of white adults.
  • 18 percent said people have often or very often acted as if they were afraid of them, compared with 2 percent of white adults.

Asare noted that racism in the workplace isn't always overt, such as the use of racial epithets against a co-worker. She said it could be not cc'ing a person of color on an important email. Comments on personal appearance can be microaggressions, such as white employees curiously—and without permission—touching Black employees' hair.

"The hair touching is one that I've experienced, and it was quite aggravating," Asare said. "I also notice in remote settings that there is less of a tendency to comment on someone's appearance versus in-person, where we are all conditioned to comment on hairstyles, what a person is wearing, etc."

Ella Washington, professor of practice at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, explained that microaggressions against Black workers can range from insensitive comments about someone's culture and appearance to offhand remarks about the role of affirmative action or other diversity initiatives in the achievement of a position.

A 2022 research article in Harvard Business Review found that many Black workers who are subject to microaggressions experience negative emotions such as anger and shame as a result. These individuals often exercise emotional restraint to avoid further conflict and being labeled an "angry Black person."

"It's about feeling respected and valued for your work and for who you are," Washington said. "Microaggressions impact these feelings and key elements of the workplace."

Tips for Reducing Microaggressions at Work

Washington said organizations must commit to a no-tolerance policy or an explicit code of conduct forbidding behaviors of racism and discrimination. They should also provide employees with education and support on what racism at work looks like.

"This can be a workshop on microaggressions or a one-pager distributed by HR," she explained. "The goal is to acknowledge that learning is necessary and that the organization supports employees on that journey of awareness."

Learning to ask the right questions and practice courageous conversations can help elevate everyone's ability to recognize and identify microaggressions when they take place, Washington added. Companies can also empower employees to take accountability for microaggressions, ask for clarification, and communicate openly and honestly.

"There are no hard and fast rules on microaggressions, and I know that can make this feel challenging," Washington said. "But if we learn to decenter ourselves and become open to the idea of learning from our mistakes rather than being crucified for them, we will be on a much better track."

Asare said awareness and accountability are crucial in reducing microaggressions at work.

"If people know that harmful behavior will result in consequences, that can be a powerful deterrent," she said. "It's important to think about accountability systems for both managers and team members, as well as educational and learning tools that can be consistently utilized to expand employee awareness about racism and microaggressions."


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