Racism at work is common — but experts say employers aren’t tackling it

From being perceived as less intelligent to unfair treatment by an employer when it comes to hiring, pay or promotions⁠, many people of colour have experienced racism in the workplace, according to a new study. 

A third to half of Canadians of colour, depending on which specific community they were from, reported being discriminated against, the Environics Institute for Survey Research reported on Tuesday.  

About 40 per cent of those who said they experienced racism told surveyors that it happened at work, making it one of the most common places to face discrimination. Only street harassment happened as often. 

While the results of the survey come as no surprise to many, collecting data about people’s personal experiences with racism at work only shows the tip of the iceberg, said Arjumand Siddiqi, the Canada research chair in population health equity. 

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There’s much more work to be done to truly understand the depth of workplace racism, she explained. 

“We spend so much of our lives at work. If we are experiencing constant stress from racism, that’s a long time of ongoing exposure to that,” said Siddiqi, an associate professor at the University of Toronto.

“Because what you really want to know is what are the consequences for this? Is this affecting people’s incomes … or promotions? Is it affecting health?”

Discrimination at work can be insidious 

The survey found that 54 per cent of Black Canadians have an ongoing experience with discrimination, meaning it occurs regularly. Indigenous people reported a similar rate of racism, with 53 per cent saying it happened on an ongoing basis. 

The report found close to a third of Indigenous people said they were treated less fairly than white people in the workplace, as did 27 per cent of Black people surveyed. 

And when these acts of racism happen, not everyone is forthcoming out of fear of reprisal. 

“There are major incidents like the really overt forms that you could identify clearly as a moment in time where an incident happened,” Siddiqi said. “But there are also what we call microaggressions.” 

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Subtle, insensitive comments or assumptions may be harder to detect.

“That is actually one of the biggest problems … smaller but very meaningful insults.”

The Environics survey accounted for some microaggressions, like others perceiving you as less intelligent due to your race, said Andrew Parkin, executive director at the firm. 

But there are also much deeper, insidious aspects of racism that go beyond the person-to-person interactions that the survey examined, Siddiqi explained. 

One of those is structural racism. Even if racist comments were not made directly to you, it’s important to ask whether people of colour are being promoted or receive the same pay as white people in a workplace, she said. 

“There could be something about workplace policies or people leading the workplace that systematically disenfranchises some groups compared to others,” she said. 

“It’s good for us to ask people about their experiences, but it’s also really important that we look at the state of affairs structurally,” like who’s doing what job and who’s earning what. 

The pay gap for racialized workers has been documented in past studies, including one from 2018 that found that people of colour earn 81 cents to every dollar white Canadians earn.

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Canadians of colour also experience higher levels of unemployment and are more likely to be in temporary employment. 

More data needs to be collected

This kind of data needs to be studied more closely and more frequently to get a fuller picture of discrimination in the workplace, said Siddiqi.

“I would fully support a data system where jobs and businesses and so on were responsible for reporting not only what employees are experiencing, but more structural things,” she said. “Like how many people are in different tiers of management … and what are people earning?”

Ontario launched standards for monitoring systemic racism in 2018, which included guidelines on how certain public sector organizations should collect race-based data to identify service gaps.

But just because there’s a policy directive and precedent, it doesn’t mean private businesses will be compelled to gather their own data, said Kathy Hogarth, associate professor in social work at the University of Waterloo.

“We haven’t changed the system to allow for the collection of such data,” she said. “So we have all these legal trappings without enforcement.”

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The survey is an indication that there’s more work needed to create an accurate picture of race relations, she continued. 

Stricter workplace policies around hiring and discrimination that are backed by real data that shows discrimination could actually lead to improvements, she said. 

“We need to address other factors that would give a better indication of racism,” she said.

“Racism isn’t just about how the individual experiences it, racism is also about structures,” she said. “The survey doesn’t question the structure …. It’s a uni-dimensional survey, which is good. But more work needs to be done.”

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