When the George Floyd protests began in late May, it seemed like many companies and industries around the country were suddenly engaged in a “reckoning” about how racism organizes the structures of their workplaces. But a new report released by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reveals how much (or, rather, how little) that recognition has really sunk in: only 13% of white HR professionals say they believe discrimination based on race or ethnicity exists in their workplace. (The report surveyed 1,257 Americans from June 11th to June 17th, 2020.)
It’s disturbing to see that so few of the professionals who have such an outsize role in recruiting, interviewing, and hiring at companies believe that racism exists within their own walls. The SHRM report found that 49% of Black HR professionals, meanwhile, believe that racial discrimination exists at their workplace. Of all human resource managers, according to 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, 77.8% are white, and just 11.1% are Black. The report also surveyed U.S. workers in general, not just HR professionals. Among white, non-HR workers, just 7% say that racism exists in their workplace. Among Black workers, 35% say the same. White HR professionals reported that gender discrimination was a problem in much higher numbers than racial discrimination, with 22% saying it exists in their workplace.
Part of the issue seems to be the specificity of words like “racism” or “discrimination.” When asked whether their organization is doing enough to “provide opportunities for Black employees,” 35% of white HR professionals and 68% of Black HR professionals say no. The report also found that 33% of Black workers say they don’t feel respected or valued at work, compared to 18% of white workers who feel that way. Moreover, 45% of Black workers say that their managers don’t support talking about race, the same proportion of Black workers that say their workplace overall discourages conversations around race.
It’s apparent that there’s severe discomfort around talking about race — 37% of both white and Black workers said they didn’t feel comfortable discussing it, with 42% of white workers going so far as to say it’s inappropriate to talk about race at work. HR professionals have a much different view, with 70% saying that discussions about race are appropriate at work. After all, if even just talking about it remains taboo, how can workers have an accurate grasp on whether racism manifests in their workplace?
Workers more readily acknowledge that racism is a problem in general society, with 54% of Black workers and 29% of white workers saying that their workplace doesn’t do enough to “promote racial justice in the world” — but fewer workers will admit it’s a problem in their own workplace, impacting their everyday lives. These survey results provide greater context for the slew of black squares posted on Instagram in June and the sudden corporate support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the weeks after the police killing of George Floyd. Many companies, including Refinery29, were questioned on their sincerity in putting forward those messages, especially after former and current employees came forward about anti-Black racism they’d experienced in the workplace.
To Black and other non-white workers across the country, this report may simply come as a confirmation of their experiences. After all, we’ve watched as some companies have shown a shocking unwillingness to make amends for objectively racist policies — even when it’s in their best interest to do so. After it was revealed that food magazine Bon Appétit, which is owened by Conde Nast, was underpaying its BIPOC staff, there were immediate calls for equal pay, as well as redress for other racist acts employees have faced. An internal investigation was launched, and for months, no new videos were uploaded to BA’s extremely popular YouTube channel, which is operated through Conde Nast Entertainment. Last week, writer Priya Krishna announced that she will no longer appear in videos, because the new contracts she and her colleague Rick Martinez were offered would still pay less than what their white colleagues are paid. To date, six BA staff members have announced they will no longer participate in the magazine’s YouTube videos.
It’s clear that American companies as a whole need to be more proactive in addressing racism within their walls — and the first step to achieving that is unequivocally acknowledging the presence of it. The SHRM report reveals that the vast majority of workplaces (67%) haven’t gauged where their own employees stand on these issues. And while 52% of workplaces claim they plan on implementing some kind of implicit bias training, only 30% say they will adjust or expand “policies and systems” in an attempt to reduce racist bias.