File picture: Raphaelstrada, Flickr.com

Is your company too white, too black, too Indian or too coloured? Do you employ only foreigners? What role has racism played in your company’s structure and composition? Does it make business sense for you? Would your company do even better if it was integrated, multicultural and multiracial?

Oh. Have you ever been passed up for a position by a counterpart of another race, though you were more qualified? Do your boss or professional peers make racially defining comments toward you on a regular basis?

As the debate about racism reverberates across the country and heightens awareness of its harmful effects on a national scale, let us not forget that racism continues to manifest in various ways in our society, including its impact on workplace harmony.

Are we reaching a point that racism is like a virus that has mutated into a new form that we do not recognise? Even though the public tries to deny it, racism is still very much alive and defines how people live, act and work.

An important obstacle to racial equity at work is the difficulty in eradicating the many forms of discrimination that are hard to quantify, especially at the systemic and personal levels. Racial discrimination in the workplace is becoming more subtle and mostly hidden in legislative technicalities. The reality of business life in our country is that racism in the workplace and marketplace is being pushed under the same rug that many pulled over affirmative action when it was introduced after the end of legalised apartheid.

Material needs

Here is why we need to work hard to see workplace multiculturism and integration: For generations, people have often been defined by the work that we do. Therefore, attachment to the workplace is an essential part of our belonging to society. The work we do does not only allow us to meet our material needs and define our identities, it is an important determinant of what type of neighbourhood we reside or live in, the cars we drive, let alone where we shop and where our children go to school. Ultimately the jobs we do determine our life chances.

That is why attachment to the workplace remains tenuous for many racialised residents of our Rainbow Nation. Systemic employment discrimination continues to represent a major stumbling block to achieve racial equality.

Another reason why we should destroy racism in the workplace is because the workplace is really, after the family, the most important social institution in our society. On average, we spend the majority of our day hours at work.

And, insofar as we will achieve racial justice and racial peace and integration and understanding, the workplace is where it’s most likely to occur, because when you’re at work, you don’t have a choice of going off in your own group. At home you have a choice of ignoring your neighbours or other people around you. At work, you are working towards a common purpose. Workplaces work best when people have that common purpose and when they feel they’re being treated fairly.

In many instances people work in racially hostile work environments. This leads to many feeling unappreciated for who they are and for the work they do.

Experience of racism itself is stressful. When experienced in the work context, racism impacts well-being and, therefore, poses a threat to financial viability.

Researchers in London found that people who report unfair treatment at work, face a greater risk of heart attack, high blood pressure and other factors that lead to heart disease.

A study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Public Health, found people who reported unfair treatment were 55 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack, develop heart disease, or have chest pains. They were 46 percent more likely to report poor physical health and an increased risk of poor mental health.

Aside from heart problems and high blood pressure, the journal mentioned that depression, migraines and sleeplessness can also result from perceptions of unfairness in the workplace. It concluded that prolonged stress, which can be attributed to racism, can contribute to hypertension, strokes, heart attacks, diabetes, ulcers and neck or low back pain.

Bad publicity

For me, racism is not just an issue of ethics. Even at an unconscious level, racism is a costly prejudice. Discrimination at work wastes management time and money in tribunal hearings, but the costs can go far beyond that.

Consider also the inestimable cost of bad publicity. If an employee has suffered racial abuse or discrimination, you can be sure that such news will spread faster and wider than any happy business tidings ever could. That is why employers who know about discriminatory harassment of their employees have a huge responsibility to prevent it.

Black, white, coloured, Indians and others have the right to go to work, do their jobs and go home without having to put up with derogatory cliques and comments based on racial stereotypes.

Workplaces which are anti-racist and which value diversity can make an important contribution to the promotion of good racial relations in our communities.

As a cultural melting pot Rainbow Nation, we have a responsibility as workers, as employers and as citizens to take a stand against racial discrimination. Providing equal access to employment opportunities makes our country a more diverse country than ever before.

How do you deal with racism in the workplace? One could deal with it by finding positive ways to deal with other negative behaviour, and by knowing that your job is not who you are. One could also deal with racism by celebrating diversity and accepting that people can be ignorant. Also, if you feel that racism is a big part of your work environment you can lodge a complaint with the Human Rights Commission.

There is no doubt that a happy and multicultural workplace is good for business. It builds employee well-being and, therefore, commitment to the organisation. It contributes to a positive working environment for all employees, which enhances productivity. It stimulates a positive profile for the organisation among a culturally diverse customer base, which improves customer satisfaction. It enables the organisation to learn from the diversity of perspectives brought forward by different ethnic groups.

All of us can play a part in demonstrating, in word and by example, that racial prejudice is unacceptable and will not be tolerated in the workplace. We should all be conscious of our own use of language and be prepared to challenge racist remarks, jokes or any other racist behaviour.

* Rich Mkhondo runs The Media and Writers Firm (www.mediaandwritersfirm.com), a content development and reputation management hub.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.

BUSINESS REPORT