After being defeated by Italy in the Euro Cup final Sunday night, three Black football players for England were subjected to virulent racism. It had been more than half a century since the team had come this close to winning and for every player, the loss was a major heartbreak. But the pain of coming in second place was compounded for Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford who suffered online harassment and abuse after missing spot-kicks in a penalty shootout. In the highly competitive world of sports, Black athletes and those of colour are “British” when they win and “immigrants” when they lose.
While a police investigation has been launched, those in positions of power have been criticised for failing to release timely, specific public statements condemning racism in football. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson took to Twitter, writing "[t]hose responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves." This was met with backlash with many pointing out that Johnson had failed to explicitly denounce booing in response to the racially diverse British soccer team taking a knee before beginning a match.
When leadership does not take prompt action against oppressive beliefs and behaviours, this sets the stage for how an organisation operates and what is and isn’t acceptable in the workplace. On the job, discrimination and racism look like limited promotion prospects, unfair working conditions, failed performance reviews due to unreachable objectives, and a lack of support and training by management. Interpersonally, racism takes on the overt form of aggression, threats, bullying, and harassment, or more subtly, microaggressions and casual slights.
When racialised employees experience racism at work, especially over longer periods of time, this can have severe impacts on their mental health, including "stress, hyper-awareness of difference, pessimism, higher incidence of psychosis and depression, decreased self-esteem, emotional distress and fear of recurrent discrimination." Black women, in particular, are more likely to report workplace-related stress related to racism.
It’s Not Just a Few Bad Apples—Get to the Core of the Issue With a Structural Review
That’s right. It’s rarely just a few bad apples making the workplace inhospitable to anyone who is not white. But this is a common idea expressed whenever someone brings up their negative experiences on the job with management. It’s not enough to try and root out racist behaviours and beliefs. The organisational structure as a whole must be put into question. Foundational changes need to be taken to address systemic inequities and barriers to inclusion. This means not only celebrating but championing anti-oppressive education for team members, bolstering community and connection, and initiating system redesign to reduce racial disparities.
Believe Racialised Team Members and Offer Support
Organisations can’t just cheer on team members when they’re winning—they need to show up for the hard times too. If an employee is experiencing racism in the workplace, hold space and take the time to listen with empathy and understanding. If someone is suffering negative mental health consequences, you can offer lighter duties or paid time off to recover. But you can also ask your employee how you can support them. They might have a need you haven’t anticipated yet. Open communication and transparency go a long way when it comes to building trust.
And don’t just wait for people to reach out—check in. Not everyone feels comfortable making the first move and breaking the ice can be a major relief for some. Leaders can’t sit idly by and put the burden on racialised employees to speak up, something that requires a lot of energy and courage to do. Timing matters too. Asking how someone is doing directly after a major event has occurred, such as racism at the Euro Cup, can have the opposite effect. Support has to happen naturally and continuously.
Invest in Anti-Oppressive Education for Employees the Right Way
Don't offload onto racialised employees by expecting them to do the extra work of educating their white colleagues. Invest time and resources into anti-oppressive education that’s suitable for the specific needs of your company. What works well for a tech company likely won’t for another and every employer has different demographics. You’re not just ticking a box that says you’ve educated employees—you’re improving conditions for racialised employees so they feel safe, empowered and successful at work.
“Happy employees make a happy company and in turne build joyful products.”
If your team members belong to multiple marginalised communities, a one-size-fits-all diversity training won’t do the heavy lifting. Instead, you’ll need to attend to the unique disparities experienced by your staff. This means developing a specific program for employees who are, for example, Black, Asian, Muslim, LGBTQ+ or disabled. This may sound like a lot of work and it is but a lot of work that will make you one of the best places to work is good work.
Consider an Anti-Racist Working Group
Once an educational program has wrapped up for team members, what comes next? Measures must be put in place to hold people accountable for racism or any other form of discrimination on the job. Some companies adopt zero-tolerance policies but don’t have an actual system in place to carry out workplace investigations. In this instance, organisations can create anti-racist working groups with bi-weekly or monthly meetings where management and team members alike are present. In these groups, input from the entire team is prioritised so everyone has their voice heard and an opportunity to be directly involved in the decision-making process. Outside consultants can also become a part of the group to help mediate in the case of pushback, disagreement or misunderstanding. These groups are important as they create a safe space in which marginalised employees can call things into question without fear of retribution or hindered opportunities for growth and advancement.
Encourage the Creation of Employee Resource Groups
Employee Resource Groups are identity or experience-based groups created with the intention of building community, providing support and enabling personal and professional success at work. These groups are typically founded by employees and company resources are allocated for meetings and events, organizational structure and liaison with leadership. If a Black, Asian, or any other ethnic minority employee resource group is created, colleagues belonging to the groups can come together, find belonging and advocate for shared interests instead of as individual actors. This empowers employees to work together towards a collective vision and to bring concerns or ideas forward to leadership as a unified front. These groups can function as assets for business decisions and the improvement of company equity and equality.
Increase Representation Across the Organisation
Research shows that candidates from minority backgrounds simply don't apply to jobs unless they see some diversity in the current team. It has become therefore imperative for all companies to take strong and serious action in building diverse and inclusive teams. Since Europe does not have institutions such as historically Black colleges and universities, one can connect with various local groups and associations representing marginalized and minority communities and foster meaningful relationships. Resources can be allocated for diversity sourcing, community building ensuring that a percentage of new hires are from diverse backgrounds.
It’s a human experience to face up against difficulties, challenges, and failures in one’s profession. But not everyone is afforded the same opportunities to move on and grow after setbacks in their careers. When the skills, talents, and brilliance of minorities and especially Black people are only celebrated in relation to positive outcomes, this leaves little to no room for error. Without interpersonal, structural, and organisational support from leadership, racialised team members will continue to be left behind and in turn, suffer mentally. What happened at the Euro Cup is a prime example of how much discrimination and racism continue to be tolerated and tacitly accepted by authority figures.
You can choose differently.