High vaccinations rates and record low COVID infections signify that things will soon return to normal. This means that many people are looking forward to returning to the office – everyone except marginalized employees.
In a recent survey, only 3% of Black employees look forward to coming back to the office. That’s a stark contrast to the 21% of white employees who yearn for an in-person work setting.
Here’s the loaded question: why is there such reservation from Black and marginalized employees about returning to in-person work? Below, we unpack the reasons behind the hesitation from marginalized employees and how corporate leaders can create a safer workspace.
Why are Racialized Employees Hesitant About In-Person Work?
Marginalized employees are far too familiar with implicit and explicit acts of racism in the workspace. Of all racial discrimination that people of color endure, 40% of it happens at work.
Working from home provided employees the relief of avoiding that issue entirely: no uncomfortable conversations, no disrespect from co-workers, and no forcing oneself to assimilate into an overbearing work culture. The reasons below will highlight the burdens that cause marginalized employees to fear returning to work.
Microaggressions are daily attitudes that display negativity towards marginalized groups. It can be as subtle as a manager only asking Black employees to get water or ignoring input from a marginalized employee during a conference meeting. That’s why these covert acts of racism have the term ‘micro.’
Unfortunately, far too many marginalized groups face microaggressions at work. For Sandra McPherson who dealt with microaggressions from coworkers for years, ‘it was the snide remarks, almost always about race,’ that prompted her to resign from her position. The situation is more apparent when the office only has a small handful of marginalized employees as well.
In short, marginalized employees code-switch to fit into a professional setting out of fear of repercussions. From changing the way someone speaks to how they style their hair, some BIPOC employees feel that authentic self-expression will lead to backlash from managers and not being taken seriously.
Over time, this masking becomes overbearing and taxing on marginalized workers. If you’re interested in learning more about code-switching, read our old blog on why code-switching exists in the workplace.
The standards in a workplace and what’s deemed ‘professional’ are rooted in white culture. The idea of the perfect employee who never makes mistakes or misspeaks adds extreme pressure on marginalized workers coming from different backgrounds. This pressure can lead to increased anxiety and stress.
These issues cause the skepticism that racialized employees feel when returning to in-person work. The solitude at homes shelter marginalized employees from having to walk into spaces where they are not valued, their voices not heard.
Racism is the number one mental health issue among Black and racialized individuals. The workplace can be a place that further perpetuates harm and trauma, making it a very unsafe environment. If employers have not done the work to address the harmful practices and policies and behaviours, employees will continue to face chronic stress, anxiety, and depression.
What Can Corporate Leaders Do to Ensure a Safe Return?
The only way to make marginalized employees feel more comfortable coming back to the office is by changing the work culture.
As leaders, it’s your obligation to support the growth of every employee. To encourage an inclusive and diverse environment, here are some changes leaders can introduce.
Businesses should create a better complaint system for employees to report instances of racism or harassment. Racialized and marginalized employees fear speaking up due to possible backlash or risking their job. To ensure the voices of marginalized employees are heard, introduce an external partner who can objectively listen and resolve their concerns.
Diversity training is never a one-and-done deal. It should always exist in the workplace for employees to learn to embrace differences and confront their biases. And it doesn’t always have to involve a PowerPoint presentation or speaker.
Diversity and inclusion training programs should be interactive. They can also encourage changes to the workspace. For example, the introduction of multicultural holiday calendars can help recognize and celebrate employees from various backgrounds and religions.
Make note however that in your efforts to address equity, diversity, and inclusion some spaces are meant for education but there also needs to be a safe and brave space provided for marginalized employees that allow for healing and centers their voices.
A diversity manager who works closely with corporate leaders and employees can spearhead your diversity and inclusion efforts. But this doesn’t imply that leadership takes a backseat.
Leaders should work with diversity managers to monitor the diversity hiring and finding new methods to celebrate marginalized employees. Having someone dedicated to this mission helps promote a more inclusive work culture for employees to feel safer.
Applying these inclusion efforts will not magically change everything overnight. And that’s not the goal anyway. You want to ensure that these actions shift the foundation of your work culture to a more accepting and inclusive space for marginalized employees.
Some organizations may create diversity and inclusion councils and committees. Organizations should encourage the creation of employee resource groups that are specific to racialized employees.
Racialized workers like anyone, deserve to work in an environment that acknowledges and celebrates their differences and promotes a safe working environment where harm is avoided. Only then can they excel professionally. This can only happen when you strip back the layers of your work culture and recognize that there’s plenty of room for improvement.
This blog is curated by Colleen James, Principal and Founder of Divonify Incorporated. Colleen’s work is centered around the dismantling of oppressive systems by working with organizational leaders to address issues of systemic racism, equity, diversity, and inclusion. If you enjoyed this blog, please share with others you feel would gain value from it.