Power of Leaders: Eradicating Racial Discrimination


The Power of Leaders in Eradicating Racial Discrimination. From the early years in my HR Career, I wore a ‘metaphorical mask’ to work as racial discrimination & bullying was part of my every day. Sunday nights my tummy was in knots, Monday 8:30am I’d pull on my mask and full armour before entering the office. Sadly, I know for many – nothing has changed.

Racial discrimination has been a long-standing issue for many decades, intolerance and racial hatred has become an increasingly present issue in the workplace that needs to be addressed, not just by leaders and organisations, but by society as a whole. 

Race is one of 9 ‘protected characteristics’ covered by discrimination law (Equality Act 2010) , seeking to protect people against discrimination at work – this includes harassment and victimisation.

Responding to a freedom of information request, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) reported that there were 3,641 employment tribunal cases for race discrimination last year (2020).  

This represents a: 

  • 79% point increase on the figure for 2017 (2,036 cases), 
  • 23 point increase on 2018’s figure (2,948) and a
  • 48% point rise on the figure for 2019 (2,464).

So, is it possible to truly eliminate racial discrimination from our workplaces? And if so, what can leaders do to make this happen?

Well, there are steps that leaders and organisations can take to help proactively and intentionally, eliminate racial discrimination within their own companies, and create a safe and welcoming environment for all employees, but be warned, this is a marathon – not a sprint!

Leadership Responsibilities

Leaders have a moral obligation to ensure that their organisation is free from racial discrimination and have the power to create a culture within their organisation where everyone feels respected and valued regardless of race.

Doing this work requires a clear explicit commitment from the Board, executive teams down, to taking consistent action to promote an anti-racist and discrimination policy within the workplace. An understanding of racial discrimination and how it manifests in the workplace is vital, alongside setting clear expectations for teams to make sure they understand what constitutes discrimination so that everyone knows how to behave appropriately. 

It is also important for leaders to lead by example – setting a standard for behaviour that does not tolerate any form of discriminatory language or conduct. Additionally, being actively involved in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) not just within their organisation but also amongst external stakeholders, participating in industry events which prioritize DEI.

Organisational Responsibilities

Organisations must create a safe, and inclusive environment where all employees feel included and welcome regardless of their ethnic backgrounds or other defining characteristics. 

Taking steps to prevent discriminatory practices by enacting clear policies which provide protection against any form of racism or bias at work – doing the work to understand if systemic customs and practises have perpetuated racism and discrimination. Scrutinise your choice of language, and when reviewing policies/procedures/frameworks through an equity/inclusion lens – question – are there any winners and losers?

Training programmes/workshops should also be put into place to ensure that everyone understands the company’s stance on anti-racism and discrimination, including what measures will be taken if it happens on the job.  

The role of leaders and organisations is instrumental in creating a workplace environment which is free from any form of racial discrimination is essential for any organisation looking to succeed in today’s competitive business landscape. 

Leaders and organisations alike have an important role to play, ensuring this goal is achieved through setting clear expectations, doing the work to become an anti-racist organisation, operating a zero-tolerance approach in all circumstances, providing training opportunities, and addressing issues when they arise head-on.   

This will not be a walk in the park – it will be uncomfortable and will require moral courage and tenacity, but by taking these steps, we can make sure our workplaces are more equitable places where everyone feels respected, treated equitably, and valued no matter who they are or where they come from.

Remember – candidates and employees expect and are inspecting how organisations are prioritising Anti-racism, DEI  and belonging as well as how the company shows up in the world.

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Janet Houlis is an accomplished business leader who combines commercial aptitude with a people-centric approach to deliver change, improve services, and achieve unparalleled customer excellence within organisations. With over thirty-three years’ experience within HR, operations and change management, Janet has a proven track record in directing change interventions, steering strategic planning and execution across multi-disciplined National and International communities, working with CEO’s, Global HRDS, Global Finance Directors, Operation Directors, Support Services, supporting both large corporates and SMEs within highly regulated environments. She has championed diversity and inclusion throughout her career, supporting clients taking meaningful steps on their EDI, Belonging and anti-racism journeys, ensuring employees remain at the heart of their business. Janet is a trained People Professional and Mentor. A Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (MCIPD), a Women on Boards Member, an Advisory Board Member and an appointed Trustee. Janet holds a Diploma in Professional Coaching (Distinction), Coaching & Mentoring International (Wolverhampton).