Why Black employees aren’t ready to return to toxic offices

Illustration: Canva/The Resolve

Being away from the office environment for the last two years gave Sandra* a unique opportunity to reflect on her experience as a Black woman in the workplace and what she saw happen to other racialized employees. Sandra, who has worked in the public-service sector for over 20 years and manages a team of seven people, realized she had been suffering under the toxic culture of her office. 

Before the pandemic hit, she was ready to leave her department and the organization. Sandra credits COVID for saving her career; virtual work meant being away from the casual water-cooler conversations, office banter, and the unexpected visitors who had no problem barging into her office to “chat.” 

With those social elements eliminated, Sandra found she was no longer privy to, nor the victim of, any of the microaggressions or discrimination she had experienced in person. She felt more relaxed and rested than she had in years. 

So when news came that she would have to return to the office, Sandra said she was “panicked at the thought of going back.”

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She is one of the many people who have had no choice but to return to the office, after the Ontario government announced that public servants must return to in-person work as of April 4. 

The decision signalled to companies across Ontario that business could resume as normal. Easing restrictions and mandates also meant it was only a matter of time before other sectors demanded their workers’ return.

If you’re one of the many people headed back to the office in the coming months, you may have mixed feelings. But for some Black employees, their hesitancy doesn’t stem primarily from the morning commute, COVID concerns, or the daily grind; it’s more a matter of mental health. 

Black workers who faced daily microaggressions, discrimination, and racism in their workplace, pre-COVID, are now coming to terms with returning to the same toxic work environments.

Call it what it is

Microaggressions have gained a lot of attention in recent years. While often perceived as less overt and damaging than blatant discriminatory acts, those slights and subtle attacks can leave you questioning yourself, your interpretation of a situation, and your capabilities. 

But the term microaggression does a disservice to Black people and the mental health system at large, says Nicole Franklin, a registered social worker, psychotherapist and the owner of Live Free Counseling Services and the Black Therapist Collective

“It’s so important that the word reflects the impact. And these acts have a macro impact, especially on the mental, physical, and emotional health of Black people,” Franklin says. 

She suggests we should call it what it is: “racism in the workplace.”

“The word ‘microaggression’ is more comfortable for people who are not experiencing it. It’s easier for them to address a microaggression than a racist incident,” she says.

‘We weren’t welcome’

Sandra remembers when she or other racialized people were excluded from meetings and key decision-making groups, even though the projects were within their scope of expertise. When confronted, the perpetrators offered no valid reason for the exclusion, no apology or acknowledgement that they had left an integral colleague out of the process. 

Of those incidents, Sandra says, “It makes you feel like a coddled child who knows nothing. Their actions sent a clear message to us that we weren’t welcome at the ‘big people’ table.” 

In another incident, two coworkers called Sandra’s promotion into question. They made the comments aloud and with a roomful of people present. It was an eye-opening moment for her and one she won’t ever forget.

On many occasions she became aware of derogatory and racist comments made by coworkers about other racialized people, too. None of the offenders faced disciplinary action, she says, even when the remarks were made in front of upper management. 

Realizing that senior management was complicit in these acts brought additional pressure and stress. “I just knew I couldn’t bring my complaints to anyone,” Sandra says.

Walking a tightrope

Richard*, an analyst and one of the few Black people in his specialized field, says he often walks a tightrope, watching what he says and how he says it, so he won’t be seen as the stereotypical “angry Black man.” 

Over the years, he’s repeatedly had to prove himself to certain coworkers, and people often over-scrutinize his work. “Some people see a Black person and automatically question what they’re doing there and whether they know what they are doing,” he says.

When asked how he deals with these situations, he says, “I think, as Black people, we learn to just carry on. Yes, it might hurt, but what can you do about it? You can’t change it. You accept it and internalize it, for better or worse.”

It’s that internalization, according to Franklin, that’s most damaging. 

“Yes, you can leave a workplace or walk out of a store that’s treating you unfairly. But what you’re processing on a deeper level still makes you feel like you’re the problem. And that is very hard to overcome,” Franklin says.

She contends that most workplaces don’t provide enough safety and security for their workers or safe processes to report transgressions.

Create a safety plan

Sandra and Richard share Franklin’s sentiments. They say they’d like to see a genuine change from the top down, which includes better policies around harassment, inclusion, and discrimination, and more support from senior management.

Franklin encourages Black people to create change. “I love the fact that people are creating new environments, new spaces, and new businesses that are built from the ground up with different philosophies and practices with the idea of staff wellness in mind.”

Franklin reminds us Black mental health is about community care. Acknowledging your feelings and seeking therapy are all important and necessary steps. But it’s also vital to speak up when you can and move towards actionable steps that can benefit us all.

Franklin advises employees returning to toxic settings to develop a “safety plan.” This type of plan outlines actions you can take when different scenarios arise. A plan may include measures such as speaking up, reporting someone, holding people accountable, or documenting transgressions. While you can develop a safety plan on your own, it’s best to seek the help of a mental health professional. 

“A safety plan may sound intense. But it’s what we need to do to protect ourselves. It provides a strategic way to fight back through small everyday acts of resistance that feel manageable,” Franklin says.

When news came that she would have to return, Sandra was quick to reach out to a counsellor who helped her develop strategies and coping mechanisms.

Since seeing a therapist, Sandra says, “My whole mentality has changed. I am now fully prepared to call out these acts and the perpetrators. Because I know, now, that the mental strain of not saying anything is worse than any backlash I could receive.” For those who find they are in a position where they can’t say or do anything, Franklin recommends documenting transgressions as they occur. And if possible, seek out others who have had similar experiences. There is power in numbers.

She also urges employees to establish boundaries between themselves and their coworkers early on. 

Finally, Franklin wants people to understand that you’re not obliged to suffer through. “It’s okay to leave. It doesn’t make you weak,” she says. Leaving is sometimes the best decision you can make for your mental health.

Perhaps the biggest issue regarding toxic workplaces is that we don’t talk enough about the racial transgressions we experience there. But Franklin maintains, “It’s not all on us; this is a systemic issue. It’s the system’s responsibility to acknowledge that this is happening, and protect us. But we also can’t wait for those changes.”

*Names have been changed

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