BIPOC employees still feel the impacts of racial inequality and better policies may be needed

With people heading back to the office, BIPOC employees have added fears about IRL work life.
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Photo Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photos: Getty Images

5 min read

Companies are calling back employees to the office in greater numbers, according to recent data from Sequoia. While leaders like Apple’s Tim Cook, Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan, and even President Biden say being in the office is important, some BIPOC employees told the New Yorker Radio Hour in March that they’re not looking forward to revisiting the racial dynamics they experience in the workplace.

A 2021 survey from Slack’s Future Forum found that 97% of Black knowledge workers in the US who are working remotely want to maintain a remote or hybrid arrangement working model, compared to 79% of white knowledge workers. BIPOC employees have added fears about returning to the office, in part because of the discrimination they might find themselves subjected to in person.

As employees head back to the office, thought leaders in the DE&I space say that it’s important to remain vigilant about creating a safe work environment by getting ahead of potential direct and indirect discrimination.

According to the National Institute of Health, microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” Microaggressions can have lasting damage on their targets’ mental health and career direction, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Examples of microaggressions, as listed in a 2021 Insider piece, include making comments about a Black woman’s hair, or telling a person of color, “‘You’re so articulate’ or ‘You speak so well.’”

BIPOC employees still feel unheard, according to a new study from Hue, a nonprofit organization focused on increasing BIPOC equity. The State of Inequity report released by Harris Poll and Hue in February found a large divide between how employees and HR professionals view the effectiveness of diversity training, with 85% of US professionals surveyed reporting “a lack of meaningful progress towards a more equitable workplace for employees of color over the past six months,” according to the press release accompanying the report. Compare that to 82% of HR professionals, who say their industry does a “good job” at implementing diversity initiatives.

BIPOC employees may be afraid to speak up. The same survey also found that 32% of BIPOC professionals say they have “felt unable to speak out against workplace discrimination they have witnessed or experienced based on their race or ethnicity.”

According to Hue founder and president Fahad Khawaja, “What has been observed on our end, is HR professionals tend to be more optimistic about what is happening at their company and the way that their employees might be perceiving things. The reality is that an employee’s experience is very different than that of an HR person.”

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Due to these fears to speak out, Myisha Hill, an anti-racism educator and founder of Check Your Privilege, says that HR and organizations should not just rely on the people directly affected by microaggressions to expose problems. She says, “These microaggressions do often fall on the people who they impact. But if HR heads work with senior leadership to develop a policy, it wouldn’t have to fall back on the person of color or other marginalized person that this affects.”

“Because microaggressions are something that can often be subtle, they can feel invisible, and they can particularly seem less visible to the person who is not experiencing it,” Khawaja said. “HR leaders need to make sure that they see what others can’t see. It’s their responsibility to make the invisible visible for themselves so that they can help employees. One way to do that is to be better in touch with employees and actually communicate with them through open channels and make sure that they’re connecting with them at events.” He also encourages HR leaders to create a culture of trust and belonging so employees will feel comfortable speaking out about discrimination they’re observing or experiencing.

BIPOC need space to recenter after experiencing racial discrimination. Remote work provides that space where people can turn off their camera. “Working from home helps a lot of folks of color because they can disconnect and reconnect in the comfort of their own home. Whatever tool they have at home to unpack at the end of a full-time work day,” Hill explained. “Working from home, communities of color have access to [emotional] tools to help them regulate [their emotions] when these incidents happen in the workplace.”

Cydney Dupree, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale University, wrote an opinion piece for The Hill in which she explained how remote work flexibility can help Black employees who may be struggling with “​​the immense burden” of working “in predominantly white workplaces.” Dupree argues that “if organizations wish to support Black employees—a common refrain, particularly since summer 2020—the one thing they must do is allow the flexibility that can help Black employees thrive.”

Finally, Khawaja and Hill both said they encourage HR departments to seek out third-party organizations to fill any knowledge gaps.—KP

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @Kris10Parisi on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Kristen for her number on Signal.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.