Ethnic Canadians face many challenges, including discrimination in the workforce. This can range from access to opportunities to worrying about how ‘white’ their resume appears.  

Many ethnic Canadians find their ability to be their authentic self at work without repercussions and often find themselves being the only person in their workplace to represent their community. Black workers face dozens of everyday hurdles, small and large, that affect their career trajectory and ability to simply make a living. 

In honour of Black History Month, we’re exploring issues Black professionals face and how we can all take steps to improve the working experience for Black Canadians. 

everyday challenges black employees encounter at work
everyday challenges black employees encounter at work

1. code-switching to be taken seriously.

What is code-switching? Code-switching refers to a person changing their behaviour, way of speaking, appearance, or self-expression to fit in or to make others feel more comfortable, depending on the situation or person they’re talking to. 

For many members of the Black community, this means switching between their authentic selves around their friends, family, and people they’re close to (by speaking their language, dialect or language register) but having to play a character at work or accessing services to pre-emptively limit discrimination. 

Code-switching is especially prevalent in workplaces, particularly in ones with limited diversity. Ethnic people often feel intense pressure to look and act like others in their workplace to be treated fairly and held to the same standards. 

2. mentally preparing for discrimination.

Nearly 77% of ethnic Canadians know they may face workplace discrimination. People who are othered due to their skin colour, accent, culture, or other factors are well aware of how their differences are treated on a systemic level. 

Though many Canadians think of the country as a post-racial society that opposes the United States' fraught history with slavery, Canada also has a long history of outright and casual racism, which continues to the present day. 

About 54% of Black Canadians report being the target of ongoing discrimination, with 40% saying it has occurred in their workplace, making work the second most common place to experience racism following in public. 

Workplace discrimination can be more insidious, as it often takes a more subtle form, such as: 

  • dismissiveness 
  • being passed over for promotions
  • lower wages
  • insensitive comments or jokes
  • microaggressions

3. facing systemic exclusion of opportunities.

Access to education varies widely based on various factors, including race. Black Canadians are more educated than at any point in history. However, education levels remain below those of white Canadians. 

According to Statistics Canada, 60.9% of Black Canadian women have post-secondary education, compared to 66.5% of Caucasian Canadian woman.

Often it’s deemed that educational opportunities available to Black people are less prestigious. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are considered less prestigious than primarily white institutions—despite rich history and countless esteemed alumni. 

Ethnic communities face limited acceptance rates at many educational institutions, meaning the bar is higher for those to succeed. A lack of higher education opportunities limits career potential, perpetuating the cycle.

4. dealing with microaggressions and biases.

According to research from the Harvard Business Review, job applicants who ‘whiten’ their names and resumes have a significantly better chance of receiving a callback when applying for jobs. 

The study revealed that, 10% of Black candidates received callbacks for their undoctored resumes, compared to 25% when they ‘whitened’ their resumes by changing their name or removing references to Black organizations they were associated with.

The survey also revealed that employers who called themselves equal opportunity employers or encouraged minority candidates to apply were just as biased as any other organizations. 

This speaks to deeply ingrained systemic biases in hiring managers that, unfortunately, can’t be fixed with a simple diversity, equity and inclusion mandate.

5. their authority is disputed more often.

Black people are less likely to have their opinions and ideas instinctively trusted than their white counterparts. Systemic racism reinforces the implicit bias that Black people are less trustworthy or less skilled, making it more difficult for Black people to establish the credibility and authority necessary to have their opinions held in high regard. 

In workplaces, Blackness is viewed as a disadvantage that needs to be overcome rather than a unique perspective that can add value to a company. Leaders are more likely to accept ideas from people who look like them, which is called similarity bias. 

Current leadership roles are overwhelmingly white and male, with 72% of senior management and executive roles held by white men, leading to perpetuating a white, male worldview in business.

6. inclusion policies don’t meet their needs.

Black workers are historically less likely to be engaged in their work and feel like they need to create an alternative persona to fit in, as we saw in the code-switching section. 

The emotional labour of maintaining this facade is often draining and leads to lower workplace satisfaction. Though all ethnic groups admitted to downplaying parts of their identity to fit in at work, according to a study by Catalyst, it’s especially prevalent among Black women: 

  • 46% of Black women and 36% of Black men say they prepare themselves to face discrimination
  • 69% of Black women said they’ve thought about quitting due to discrimination

This is often due to a lack of consideration for the unique needs of Black employees. Diversifying a workforce has become a trending concern for hiring managers, but inclusion practices continue to fall short. 

Diversity policies give Black and ethnic people a foot in the door, but inclusion allows them to feel safe to share their ideas and authentic selves. 

Learn how we can encourage Black female leaders here.

7. expected to be a voice for an entire community

Black men and women often face the issue of being the only Black person in the room (sometimes even the only person of colour), especially as they climb the corporate ladder.

If there’s only one Black person in the room, it can lead to an expectation for that person to become the voice for all Black or ethnic people. This puts pressure on them to speak for a highly diverse group of people with wildly varying opinions, backgrounds, and ideas. 

This pressure is even higher for Black women, who are statistically most likely to be the only ones in the room; they face the dual pressures of being Black and a woman. This only-ism can often promote feelings of self-consciousness and the feeling of being on display. 

When you stand out, there’s heightened awareness of your actions and potential mistakes.

8. facing unrealistic expectations

Over the last couple of decades, diversity hiring has become more common. Companies want to be able to proclaim they have a diverse workforce loudly. While prioritizing diverse candidates simply levels the playing field after centuries of exclusion and systemic racism, the reality of being a ‘diversity hire’ is not so simple. 

Unfortunately, many still view candidates hired through diversity initiatives as having ‘skipped the line’ or having an ‘unfair advantage.’ Many still assume that these diverse hires don’t have the skills to do the job they were hired for. While that’s simply untrue, the biases persist. 

To counter these unfair narratives, Black employees have to excel and go above and beyond to prove they’ve earned their spot in a way white colleagues do not. Similarly, the threshold to qualify for new, more prestigious roles is higher.

Want to learn more about the history of black workers in Canada? This article gives a great background of Black workers in Canada from 1680 to 1980.

check out more diversity & inclusion content to learn how you can make your workplace more equitable for Black and ethnic Canadians. 

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