Racism at work: a management accident?

Journal of European Industrial Training

ISSN: 0309-0590

Article publication date: 1 March 2000



(2000), "Racism at work: a management accident?", Journal of European Industrial Training, Vol. 24 No. 2/3/4. https://doi.org/10.1108/jeit.2000.00324bab.006



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Racism at work: a management accident?

Racism at work: a management accident?

Institutional racism has hit the headlines and raises sensitivities in many organizations. Presenting a paper to the British Psychological Society's Occupational Psychology Conference earlier this year, Dr Jo Rick of the Institute for Employment Studies offered important empirical research into how discrimination can arise despite the best intent, and how organizational structures and cultures can sustain prejudice in the workplace.

The public sector organization in this study has an excellent record for employing ethnic minority staff, comparatively good representation of ethnic minorities among more senior levels and a strong commitment to practising and monitoring equal opportunities and pay. The disciplinary systems caused no bias, yet disproportionately high numbers of ethnic minority employees were experiencing disciplinary action.

Dr Rick explained the difficulties in identifying the roots of the apparent inadvertent racism:

When personnel practice is devolved to line managers we find that not all performance systems are equally applied. The decision to use formal disciplinary procedures was based to some extent on the severity of the offence, but also on whether the person being disciplined was from a different ethnic background. In the latter case, managers' actions became polarized. They either strove to avoid formal procedures altogether, or moved early to put everything on a formal footing (partly to demonstrate that everything was done properly). Both instances can have negative consequences for employees. In the first, appropriate feedback on expected standards of performance is withheld from an individual. In the second, an individual is far more likely to have a disciplinary record, which can go against them in the future. These are the consequences of decisions based on an individual's ethnicity rather than their behaviour.

In the case study, three major deciding factors determined when and why managers turned to formal disciplinary procedures:

  1. 1.

    The individual being disciplined was from a different ethnic background.

  2. 2.

    The offence was serious enough to warrant dismissal.

  3. 3.

    It provided an opportunity to deal with some other problem indirectly (e.g. overall poor performance).

The first reason could be from good intent. But, while avoiding formality can be unfair by denying important, timely feedback, so can overt resort to "unbiased" formality give the individual an unnecessary "record". The second situation may indicate a history of avoiding feedback; was there a poor relationship between the manager and employee that allowed the ultimate situation to develop? In the third case, deferring management of poor performance for whatever reason can be unfair; if that reason is lack of confidence in dealing with potential racial bias, then inadvertent racism can again creep in.

White employees in the study were more likely to be described positively than ethnic minority individuals. Further analysis shows that ethnic and white interviewees display different rating behaviours: whites praise whites more than ethnic minorities praise each other, across a wide range of attributes.

Penny Tamkin, co-presenter of the paper, pointed out:

The differences in attributions and descriptions of individuals are stark. White interviewees are much more likely to describe negative behaviours from ethnic minority individuals, whereas ethnic minority interviewees are just as likely to discuss good and poor performance from ethnic minorities and white staff alike.

At the broadest level of the analysis, ethnic minority individuals were less likely to be offered as exemplars of excellent performance, and over-represented among examples of poor performance.

To sum up:

  • Devolution of personnel procedures leaves many managers unconfident about the discretionary areas of performance management. Into this creep personal coping mechanisms which can inadvertently introduce discrimination.

  • Ethnic minorities form an increasing proportion of the workforce, and particularly among the highly skilled and educated. Their diversity and value are being increasingly recognized in recruitment policies, but organizations can still lose the track in their systems and culture.

  • Explicit rules and expectations, standards and definitions, together with competency frameworks can help to avoid bias in the way an organization's systems and procedures are put into practice.

  • In addition, this research pointed to the need for effective performance appraisal systems for individual staff based on clear and agreed standards for performance and behaviour; the introduction of effective capability procedures; training for managers and human resource specialists in managing equality and diversity; and the provision of appropriate support for managers.

For further information about this study and similar work within the Institute of Employment Studies, please contact Jo Rick on 01273 686751.

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