We need to talk about racism at work

Lisa Annese, Dr Virginia Mapedzahama and Ming Long AM
Opinion pieces

In Australia, there is a deep reluctance to talk about racism. 

In workplaces, we use words like cultural diversity and exclusion, yet rarely call racism for what it is. 

But in not naming racism, particularly at work, many Australians continue to endure it from organisations and individuals in their daily working lives. 

Our research shows that in the past year, one in two Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people experienced at least one incident of racial harassment or discrimination at work.

Separate research found more than one in three Australians born overseas of non-English speaking backgrounds experienced discrimination in the last year because of their skin colour, ethnicity, or religion. This rises to two in five for Australians born in an Asian country. What’s more, about one in three Australians hold negative views towards Muslims.   

While these are sobering facts, change is happening. Australian businesses are more ready than ever to begin having the important conversations about race that allow us to identify and respond to racism effectively.  

In mid-2020, at the time of the global push for racial justice, large numbers of Diversity Council Australia members began coming to us for advice on addressing racism in their workplaces. 

But to do so, they needed guidance on where to start and how to understand racism.

Importantly, that advice had to consider Australia’s historical context to address the specific ways racism plays out in Australian organisations.

Our resulting report, Racism at Work, captures these lived experiences, the barriers that facilitate racism in Australian workplaces, and an evidence-based organisational framework for anti-racism action.

The experiences of racism as told to our researchers are uncomfortable and confronting to read, especially for some people who don’t experience racism, but are an alarming and pervasive reality for the people who face them at work.  

Research respondents told of being singled out by their colleagues because of their race and being subjected to derogatory names, harmful stereotypes, and constant taunting.

In many instances, management waved away individuals when they reported racism, often downplaying it or being outright dismissive. 

Of course, racism in the workplace is not only the result of behaviours or attitudes from a few people but entrenched in organisations, workplace policies and workplace cultures. 

This sort of systemic racism can be hard for organisations to hear about.

But it becomes apparent when we recognise how some businesses disproportionately fill fixed-term contracts with people of colour, task racially marginalised people with more difficult work, and display cultural bias by preferencing as one respondent told us, “white men with easy to spell surnames for management positions”. 

Racism has a high personal cost for the individual employees who experience it. For workplaces, racism also impacts innovation, profit, market share, and can lead to absenteeism, turnover, and loss of staff morale and productivity.

No organisation is immune from the scourge of racism and addressing it requires more than individuals and businesses passively claiming they are not racist.

People who experienced racism told us that if we as a nation are to really address racism, we must start using the language that focuses on race and racial injustice rather than on culture and cultural diversity, because they are not the same.

That is, we need to actually talk about racism at work.

We also found that approaches to racism in Australian workplaces will only succeed if they recognise and acknowledge racism as systemic and centre the voices of people who have experienced racism.

Proactively engaging in change is not just the role of business leaders, but workers at all levels of an organisation to provide a racially safe workplace and address racism when it arises.  

Expecting racially marginalised people to carry the weight of workplace change alone would ignore the cultural load they already endure and essentially ask them to solve an issue that is not theirs.

Addressing racism at work requires proactive anti-racism measures that stand up to and challenge racist workplace policies, practices and procedures, alongside actions that address racist behaviours and attitudes among employees.

On this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we urge businesses across Australia to recognise the realities of racism at work and take evidence-based actions to address it.   


This piece was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Lisa Annese is CEO of Diversity Council Australia (DCA)
Dr Virginia Mapedzahama is the Director of Member Education DCA, and a report co-author
Ming Long AM, is the Chair of the DCA Board.


I would like to join this very important conversation
Posted by: Suresh Marcandan on
The Anti-discrimination Act has bee around for 4 decades starting with the NSW Act of 1977. As an activist in anti-racism including serving as a member of the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal (called NCAT now), I am not surprised that racism has resurged as shown by Diversity Council Australia's (DCA) Racism at Work report. In the last 20 years, the Federal & State governments only pay lip service to changes to include criminal sanctions for some offences. Their reluctance to do so and the current climate of politicians playing the racial card, has given licence to racists, and sprouted hate crimes. The diverse community should collaborate with DCA and other like minded organisations to revive the campaigns we had with the ethnic communities of the 1980s and 1990s.
Posted by: Anthony Pun on
This article is so interesting. I wish I was in a position to help. Having a background in HR and worked overseas from 1997 - 2010 within HR, and recruited people from 19 different sects (ethnicities), various age and educational groups, I think the first point that needs to be addressed in discrimination in recruitment and selection. I guess this is where it all begins. I know of several qualified people in Australia (immigrants whose first language is not English but who are fluent in English), who are currently unemployed and are on welfare, which means costing the country, as they have not been accepted to jobs, because of discrimination as they see it. If Australia wants people to be integrated, they need to open doors for these people to contribute and be part of the Australian society. Some of them don't know English. I have been engaging with several women over the past few months from Latin America and the Middle East and guess what ? They all have degrees, live on welfare and have been unemployed for a long time... It is about time there is a bit more diversity. Just because someone lived overseas and worked there doesn't mean they don't know. It actually means they may speak more than one language, they have cultural exposure and have been through a looooong process to get to Australia. With all the effort this group are making, by learning English, becoming citizens, studying and attaining diplomas, it is sad that all this may not be taken into consideration by employers and, as a result, they are unemployed, basically doing nothing and costing the government a lot. Yes, employers have to upskill these people. I would look at a policy which is related to upskilling these groups and offering them roles, even junior ones so they can get their foot in the door. Many of these people have considered leaving Australia permanently thinking that it is a racist country. Sad to hear this from some people... I know action needs to be taken and I hope something changes soon.
Posted by: Rayan Millard on

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