The Future of Race in the Workplace and What We Can Do Now

We can't ignore it and hope that things are just "going back to normal eventually" anymore. What has finally become painfully apparent to everyone in the last few months is that we have a lot of work left to do.

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We can’t ignore it and hope that things are just “going back to normal eventually” anymore. What has finally become painfully apparent to everyone in the last few months is that we have a lot of work left to do. The devastating affects of COVID-19 and the horrific and consistent use of force that more often results in the deaths of black Americans have collided in a watershed moment not just for this nation, but for the world as well. I’m not here to break down history and hundreds of years of systemic oppression and violence. Those books, articles and documentaries are widely available to you. I’m here to talk about what this means in the workplace right now, and as we move forward during a critical and pivotal moment in time.

To start, I’m going to lay out a handful of examples below, of situations I’ve actually experienced in the workplace over the course of the last twenty years. I’ve discovered that people in general can relate and listen better to people they know, so starting with you, my connections and colleagues on Linked In, I’d like to ask you to read each occurrence and try to wrestle with the impact of that moment on your life (if it had been you), and to realize that workplace examples are just a fraction of what I experience as a mixed/black woman in the world on any given day:

  1. I’ve been told that I should chemically relax, cut, and/or straighten my hair because it is much more “professional” for the workplace. I’ve also had someone come up behind me, while I was seated at my desk, and start running their fingers through my hair, claiming they couldn’t resist not touching it anymore.
  2. I’ve been told to “get back on the boat where I came from”.
  3. I’ve been asked to “speak to the manager” when I clearly am the person in charge, (name tag and all), and when I point this out to the person they say “no, the real manager”.
  4. Discovered (by accident) that a white woman doing the same job as I was, was earning twice as much annual salary than I, and that a white man doing the same job, was receiving three times as much.
  5. I have endured more instances of micro and macro aggressions than I can count.
Photo by Brinkley Main Photography

Ok, Hair

Did you know California was the first state to ban racial discrimination based on hair texture/style? On July 3, 2020 it will be the one year anniversary of it being signed into law. My friends, colleagues and I have discussed the simultaneous relief and also utter ridiculousness of this. But the fact is, discrimination based on hair texture and style (therefore race) still happens. It’s one of those things about bias that is very difficult to overcome. Employers can and do make judgments and decisions over a potential employee’s appearance regardless, and black hair textures and styles haven’t yet been normalized in general society. Over the years, when going to job interviews or professional events, of course I have always dressed to impress, made sure I had copies of my resume and references in hand and sometimes, even had copies of my degrees (because I have been asked for proof of those as well). But added to this is the completely insane worry of how to present my hair, because the fear of discrimination that is very real.

In its natural state my hair is very thick/frizzy/curly and it grows up and out, not down. A lot like Angela Davis actually. This hair I learned at a very young age, is seen as frightening, wrong, wild, not normative and needing to be contained. I did chemically relax it for many years. Now I braid it, twist it, sometimes I cut it. Like most women, I do different things with my hair! But for the most part I try to keep it long enough that I can put it up and back in a bun and be “acceptable” in a professional situation.

Why should I have to do that? Have you ever had to think about that? Did you know there are cases where people have been hired, only to be told afterwards or when they showed up to work, that their offer would be rescinded if they didn’t comply with hair standards set by the company that would necessitate a drastic change in their hair style and appearance?

So What Can We Do Now?

Hair is a personal thing, but in the case of black hair, it can be hijacked as a political thing and affects the work experience. And it’s also just one small part of addressing bias at work. So employers have a responsibility if they really want to affect change, to provide a welcoming and inclusive environment that attracts diverse candidates who can just be who they are.

Start of by checking yourself personally. Do you make or help to make recruiting or hiring decisions? Studies have been done that show all of us have bias in some way or another. It doesn’t mean it’s intentional by you personally or that you are a bad person, but it does need to be acknowledged and broken down. Decades upon decades upon decades of systematic process and belief have contributed to this. It didn’t happen overnight and it won’t be resolved overnight either, but here’s where you can start:

  • Do you have a company dress code and does it address hair specifically? Do you need it to? If so, why?
  • Do you have an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion program in place? If not, how are you planning for one and what steps will you take?
  • Look at the demographics for your state, county and city. How does that compare to the demographics and representation of your company and, what does that look like at the leadership/management level?

We Are a Nation of Immigrants

While the harsh comment of “get back on the boat where you came from” happened quite some time ago, the notion of being from “somewhere else” is also a sticky point in the workplace. I’ve met people of all backgrounds whose families have been in the United States for several generations, but there is often a veiled inquiry about race behind “where are you from?” or worse “what are you?” that implies you don’t belong and must be from a far away land. When I say I grew up in Canada and moved to the United States a few years ago, there is sometimes an awkward look to the side, maybe a shuffle of the feet or throat clearing followed by “no, I mean where are you really from?” or “well, what’s your background?” I have even been outright asked that question, here on Linked In, in private messages from people that I don’t know! I’m not saying you can’t ask people about where they are from or even what their background is, but what I am asking is WHY you need to know that? Do you ask everyone that question, or only people who are different than you?

I am an open and friendly person. Most people I work with closely and I start to get to know, I feel comfortable telling my whole long life story to, if they feel like listening to it! These kinds of conversations eventually happen organically and naturally. But when it’s the first or early words you say to someone it’s offensive, period. This brutally honest article lays out how to have these kinds of conversations without coming off like a, um, well…jerk.

Equity is defined as the fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation, access, opportunity and advancement of marginalized groups of people.

Earlier I mentioned my personal experience with the wage gap. This is so important because it directly affects the future of families and children and how generational wealth is built and distributed. I’ve encountered this discrepancy almost everywhere I have ever worked. And that’s just me, the impacts of this issue (and all of this) go so far beyond me personally, but this is the vantage point I have to share. Folks in Human Resources and those in control of wage negotiations: people DO in fact find out about wage differences more often than you know and it causes huge harm and turmoil that directly affects your retention and job satisfaction rates. Here’s a sobering report from just three months ago that breaks down where we’re at right now, but essentially and on average:

  • Latina women earn 54 cents for every dollar paid to white men.
  • Native American women earn 57 cents for every dollar.
  • Black women earn 62 cents for every dollar.
  • White women earn 79 cents for every dollar.
  • Asian American women earn 90 cents for every dollar.
  • Across all racial and ethnic groups, women in the United States are typically paid 82 cents for every dollar paid to men. 

Are the above statistics applicable to every woman and every man in every situation? No. Is the fight for equity for women and ethnic women similar but still different? Yes. I’ll say it again. Yes. It is different. The fact plainly remains that wage gaps and disparity overall is so great, that actual pay equity goes to the very few who manage to get to the upper echelons and then it tends to get confusing and twisted into a class argument. Any lasting, progressive gains are effectively and totally lost for the majority.

So, what do we do about it?

Photo by

Look at your Salary Bands. Do you have them? Also, are they public? If not, could you share them confidentially with potential candidates before they come in for an interview? It’s frustrating that many companies advertise positions that have double digit salary differences i.e. ($40-80K depending on experience!) or sadly, none at all. Yet, in every interview I’ve ever been on, I have been asked what I’m currently making and what I expect to make, even if they haven’t advertised the salary. I also get that employers want great candidates who aren’t all about salary and that there are other perks that make an offer attractive. However, this tactic always puts the ball in the court of the employer, subject to personal bias, and leaves the potential candidate and most especially the diverse candidate, at a disadvantage. What about the common measurables like Education, Experience and Connections? What are the things you use to measure candidate worthiness and salary and, are they applied equally, every time?

Merit and Performance Reviews. Does your company conduct performance reviews at least once and hopefully more than once a year? Are the accountabilities clearly and equitably laid out to each and every employee? Do you do several but brief employee/manager, one-on-ones throughout the year and do you regularly solicit feedback through surveys and conversations? Employees should not just be waiting for one time per year to receive feedback armed with hope against hope that they will receive some kind of a raise or be working towards a promotion without any guidance on how to do that. Also, don’t ask your staff to live-for-their-work-and- work-only to be deemed worthy of recognition and advancement. This is a terribly outdated notion that directly contributes to burnout and invites mental health and wellness challenges. It also wreaks havoc on families, where it is likely that both parents are working. Work-life balance needs to be recognized and supported.

Don’t do what you’ve always done because it’s easier. The key to authentically paving the way through with progressive change is to try to think of ways to do things better. It means taking a hard look in the mirror, personally. It means taking a close look at your work environment, your clients and your own company demographics. It probably means hiring a professional to help you navigate this territory so that you don’t un-intentionally do things the wrong way because you don’t know better right now, even though you have good intentions. Getting your staff formally introduced to and educated in equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives helps to guide appropriate workplace behaviors and will cut down or eliminate instances of offensive language and actions that cause harm.

Finally, listen to and encourage your industry colleagues and employees that are part of disadvantaged groups like women and ethnic minorities. We have great ideas and want to live the dream just like you. Sometimes, we’re not used to being asked to be at the table, speaking up, and we have had our intelligence, capability and authority questioned repeatedly and yet, we so much want to be here and have a lot to offer! I heard a great quote recently that’s included in the following and final article, I’ll leave you with, but I also want to point out this: Nobody likes to be made to feel like a token. I’ve been told this before too, that I received a job promotion because they needed someone “like me” to look good for diversity initiatives (essentially erasing the fact that I’d worked hard and proven myself). If someone is made to feel they are more valued for diversity boxes, rather than their skill, potential and added value, that is a slippery slope too.

Photo by Nicolette Lovell

If I can leave you with one final and positive thought, it’s that I do believe most of us want an equitable, diverse, inclusive workplace and world. We don’t always know the perfect words and actions, but if we can just keep trying, doing and be open to change – even and especially when it’s uncomfortable, we can get there.

Thanks for getting to the end of this article with me. I’d love for you to share it if it was helpful and to know how you’re moving forward, navigating race in the workplace – leave a comment below!

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