What can organisations do to help manage racism? ‘Buffering and diversity spillovers, the second-hand smoke effect’

Findings from a Seminar presented by Professor Belle Rose Ragins  at the Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity, Queen Mary University, London  on the 29th March 2017.

Belle Rose Ragins  is Professor of Management from Lubar Business School from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, USA. The emphasis in the seminar was exploring what can organisations positively do to limit the effects of subtle in-direct discrimination in their own organisations. It is this organisational focus exploring how organisations can support their diverse employees without dissolving this to the responsibility of the individual level that was refreshing to hear. It recognises that HR, senior managers and equal opportunities practitioners are all searching for organisational responses that can help combat racism. It was also relevant post Trump as issues around race appear to have risen again in the US and there has been a spike in hate crimes in the UK post-Brexit.

It is the points about ‘buffering and spillover’ based on Belle’s research that I am going to highlight here as this indicates how and why organisations themselves can take action.

So what does buffeting and spillover mean?  Starting with buffering this is linked to how racism can persist in organisations through unconscious micro-aggression comments and views, the subtle put downs such as ‘never seen black people do that’ or asking ‘why do you sound white’ or sitting further away from people of a different race. People are generally unaware that they are doing this but they are using stereotypes to judge you or look at you based on race. Research clearly indicates that when employees experience racism it can lead to increased stress and reduced mental and physical health (Schmitt et al 2014).  So Belle conducted psychological research to examine what could help regulate micro-aggression that many people experience in the workplace. Her central question was can mentoring help organisations combat racism?                    

 Her research published in Ragins et al (2016) suggests that mentoring can have a ‘buffering’ effect. In other words mentoring is triage, helping individuals to manage the effects of racism it is not an overall cure.  Key to this buffering is the need for a  high quality relationship between the mentor and mentee, which can help alleviate the effects of micro aggression. For example, it can provide holding behaviours for the mentee because the relationship can provide a safe space to discuss these issues, it can also offer new perspectives of how to deal with these issues or evaluate them without being judgemental, showing empathy to the mentee. However, it is the mentoring arrangement that is fundamental here whether formal or informal did not matter. However, her research evidenced that other relationships with colleagues and supervisors do not have the same buffering effect because they do not validate experience. The message to take away here is that many organsiations do have mentoring arrangements in the workplace so it could be useful for org EO practitioners, HR or senior managers in organisations to revisit their mentoring arrangements ensuring that there are of good quality and thereby helping to provide a buffer against the subtle putdowns that perpetuate racism in the workplace. This can then help combat the subtle effects of racism and the detrimental effect it can have on people’s health but also a detrimental effect on the work environment itself, which impacts on all employees.

The other theme that Belle introduced was the idea of ‘spillover’ (Ragins et al 2012). What Belle was arguing is that what happens in other domains such as the local community affect the workplace. Thus if there is an intolerant racist climate in the local community it will impinge on the workplace. Ideally a positive society contests changes in attitudes to racism such as ‘the not in our town’ campaign in the US. But if there is ‘white flight’ with white people moving out of a community when others groups move in (Pais et al 2009) or if the community becomes segregated this has implications for organisations located in these communities. What Belle highlights is there is a business case for organisations to get involved in community action. This case is linked to how climate matters both within and outside the community for job embeddedness and job attachment. If there is an intolerant racist climate it can both help/hinder organisational ability to retain talented workers of all races even if racism is not experienced in the workplace. Regardless of whether there is an inclusive climate at work, if workers are not happy in their community they will leave. Thus organisations too need to create opportunities for contact with the community and take a stand against the toxicity of racism because ultimately it affects companies’ turnover and retention of all their employees if employee attachment and embeddedness are reduced.   Thus there becomes a business case for community involvement that goes beyond social justice arguments, which may help persuade organisations of the importance of this type of involvement.

 Susan Sayce, University of East Anglia


Pais, J.F., South, S.J. and Crowder, K., 2009. White flight revisited: A multiethnic perspective on neighborhood out-migration. Population Research and Policy Review, 28(3), pp.321-346.

Ragins, B. R., Gonzalez, J. A., Ehrhardt, K. and Singh, R. (2012), Crossing the Threshold: The Spillover of Community Racial Diversity and Diversity Climate to the Workplace. Personnel Psychology, 65: 755–787.

Ragins, B.R., Ehrhardt, K., Lyness, K.S., Murphy, D.D. and Capman, J.F., 2016. Anchoring  Relationships  at  Work: High-quality mentors and other supportive work relationships as buffers to ambient racial discrimination  . Personnel Psychology.

Schmitt MT, Branscombe NR, Postmes T,Garcia A. (2014). The consequences of perceived discrimination for psychological well-being: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 140, 921–948.


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