‘No magic solution’ to racism in workplace, ESRI report finds

Diversity training can act as little more than box-ticking, study finds

The report found that  diversity training within companies can raise awareness of bias, but there is little evidence that it changes behaviour. Photograph: iStock

The report found that diversity training within companies can raise awareness of bias, but there is little evidence that it changes behaviour. Photograph: iStock

 

There is no single solution to racism in the workplace and while anti-discrimination legislation sends an important signal, its effectiveness “is not always clear”, a new report has found.

The research by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) reviews the international literature on racial discrimination in the labour market and the effectiveness of measures to combat it.

While anti-discrimination legislation is important in terms of sending signals about acceptable behaviour and attitudes within a society, such legislation is not self-enforcing, it said.

“Complex national legal systems contributing to lengthy proceedings, ambiguity around potential benefits for victims, lack of awareness of rights, risk of retaliation and a lack of support for victims all work towards a low proportion of cases being taken against discriminating employers,” the report said, noting that if very few cases are taken the deterrent effect is lessened.

The study concludes that policies based purely on a “punitive approach” are insufficient without complementary “proactive policies” such as linking grants for public contracts to diversity and equality measures or providing wage subsidies for hiring disadvantaged groups – a measure that has been used in several countries.

The effectiveness of direct affirmative action which seeks to increase diversity by setting numerical targets depends on how measures are conducted and communicated, it said.

While affirmative action policies that rely on strict quotas and preferential treatment for minority groups have been shown to improve representation, they have also experienced considerable backlash in the United States, the report found.

This was “linked to perceived violation of equality or merit-based norms,” it said.

Diversity training

On diversity training within companies, the report said “unconscious bias training (UBT)” can raise awareness of bias, but there is little evidence that it changes behaviour.

“There is also a risk that diversity training and UBT can be used to ‘tick the box’ regarding pro-diversity efforts,” it said.

Diversity training tends to work best to increase minority representation if it is voluntary and its aims are well communicated.

The challenge of deploying measures in smaller enterprises is often overlooked, the report said, noting most workers in Ireland are employed in SMEs.

The report’s findings will inform a new national action plan against racism.

“Our review shows that there is no single solution to combatting labour market discrimination”, the report’s author Frances McGinnity said. “The most effective strategy for Ireland will involve the introduction and evaluation of a range of measures, as well as clear communication of their aims and effectiveness.”