Discussions around race are nothing new, so what needs to change?

Discussion about race in the workplace is not a new phenomenon, says Mary Asante, Director at HRi, so what needs to change?

The UK first passed the Race Relations Act in 1965. This act was reviewed in 1968, and again in 1976, with the most recent act about race, the Equality Act, passed in 2010. George Floyd’s death and protests across the world by the Black Lives Matter movement and its allies have highlighted how widespread and sensitive the issue of racism still is. Race discussions continue to be a difficult and uncomfortable discussion in society at large and particularly in the workplace. People still seem reluctant to talk about it, fearing they may say something wrong and inadvertently offend someone. In most workplaces, it is quietly subsumed into the equality or diversity and inclusion discussions and rarely receives enough mention, discussion, or attention. The result of this is sadly limited change and slow progress.

Race and Employment

The issue of race raises its head right from the onset of the employment journey, at the recruitment stage and may be prevalent throughout the employee lifecycle. Although the reality is that it starts way before this in society and in the education of our children.

Recruitment and Selection

The recruitment and selection process often unfairly discriminates against candidates from ethnic minorities, often unconsciously. For instance, the CV screening process may preclude candidates with foreign or minority sounding names. This is regardless of whether the individual is British, born and raised in Britain or not. As a result, there has been a call for blind selection of CVs (i.e., selecting CVs without candidates’ names on them) as a potential solution to this issue. Whilst this may help at initial stages, this alone will not resolve the issues surrounding racial bias and discrimination in the recruitment process, they will instead simply rear their head further along in the process.

Let’s look at an example for you to further demonstrate this point. Amy applied for a senior manager in a large well-known company. She was very qualified, educated to degree level, with years of experience in her field. She was a highflyer, meeting a lot of the job role requirements in the job description. Amy was shortlisted for and had a successful phone interview. She was invited to the second stage face-to-face interview, which she was extremely pleased with. Amy turned up for the interview and introduced herself at the reception, stating why she was there. The receptionist seemed surprised, as did the hiring manager when they came to the reception area to meet her. Amy is Black British, born and raised in London. She is well spoken and articulated. There was no indication whatsoever during the phone interview that Amy was Black. Hence, the recruiting team were totally surprised and taken aback when they met her in person. This made the second interview awkward. Amy did not get the job. The hiring team could not rise above their prejudice.

Progression and Talent Development

When it comes to progressing within organisations, the glass ceiling for most minorities is much lower. The McGregor-Smith review on Race in the workplace highlights that ‘only one in 16 in top management positions are held by an ethnic minority person’. This figure becomes even lower when you take a closer look at the separate groups within the ethnicity pool. The representation for Black and South Asian in top management positions is much lower. It doesn’t take much to realise that there is a real ‘wastage’ of talent and indeed, a missed opportunity for employers to engage and benefit from the skills and talent of a diverse workforce by limiting the development opportunities for minority individuals.

Minorities are often overlooked for promotion for a variety of reasons. In some cases, there is a lack of recognition for the roles minorities play in organisations. They may never truly belong or be given opportunities to shine in the same way as their white colleagues. Whether this is down to unconscious bias, conscious bias or favouritism or a combination of all three remains a challenge which needs to be further explored.

Here’s another example. Roy was a member of the leadership team of a technology company. The team comprised of seven senior managers, four of whom were already directors of the business. Roy looked after a number of functions in the business, including the IT department. He made significant contributions to the business and the strategic direction of the business. Over a period of two years, two of the three non-directors were made directors of the business. Roy was side-lined. There were never even any discussions around appointing Roy to the Board of directors. Operationally, Roy operated at director level, but was never offered the opportunity or recognition as a director of the business. The sad reality is that the organisation is not going to appoint a Black man to their Board of Directors, but were quite happy to exploit his skills, expertise, knowledge, hard work and dedication.

As Lynne Ingram, Managing Associate at the solicitors, Freeths explains, it is vitally important that decisions relating to employees are based on skills and attributes rather than any conscious or unconscious bias. “Once an allegation of discrimination or less favourable treatment because of race is raised by an employee, the burden moves to the employer to prove that that any decision is not because of discrimination. The risks to the business are not only the failure to retain talent, losing out on the positives of a diverse workforce, reputational damage but compensation is uncapped for discrimination, the highest award was in excess of £1.5 million which was an extreme case, but the average award is £35k.”

Reward and Recognition

Minorities may be paid less for performing similar roles within organisations. The gap becomes wider for ethnic minority women. The same can be said for bonus payments and other incentives. All employees must be valued, recognised, and rewarded accordingly for
their effort, output, and contribution. The decision should not be influenced by whether the decision maker ‘likes someone or not’ but they often and sadly are. There have been calls for the government to make ethnicity pay gap reporting compulsory for organisations, similar to gender pay gap reporting (currently suspended due to the pandemic). The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that gender pay gap dropped from 17.4% in 2019 to 15.5%, a step in the right direction. Campaigners for ethnicity pay gap reporting hope that mandating organisations to report on ethnicity pay gap will have the same impact over a period of time.

Organisational Culture

Talking about race in the workplace is often seen as HR’s job, with senior leadership very often passing the responsibility on. The reality is however that for effective and meaningful conversations to take place in the workplace, and for change to happen, the leadership team need to be driving this. It needs to be on the boardroom agenda, not as a checklist exercise for HR to fulfil. Ultimately it be deliberated by the board; backed with action and accountability. And not only that, but the culture within organisations must be open to honest discussions around race. This is where HR can come in, to ask the challenging and sometimes uncomfortable questions and to help leaders look at their own organisations and in effect, hold up that mirror for them. HR can play a key role in highlighting the issue of racial inequality and racism within their organisation or when working with their clients as an external HR professional. This must be done at all stages throughout the employee lifecycle.

Holding leaders to account

Organisational leadership must be accountable for all aspects of race, racial discrimination, and racial inequalities. They must engage with HR, Equality and Diversity professionals and legal advisors to enable them to address the issue holistically, for their organisation to benefit from the skills, knowledge, experience, and talent of a more inclusive workforce.

With this in mind, I will close with some key questions organisations (and more specifically leaders) can ask themselves to help promote equality and tackle racism in their workplace:

  1. When have your employees felt different to others in the business?
  2. How did that impact your employee’s behaviours? This might not necessarily be work related. It could be for instance, not putting themselves forwards for opportunities within their teams.
  3. What is racism? And what does racism look like in our organisation because it will no doubt exist somewhere.
  4. How can we address racism within our business?
  5. How can we create and drive genuine equal opportunities within our
  6. What biases do I have as a leader? Leaders and managers would do well to take the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT)which highlights our own biases and how these can unconsciously impact our decision-making process.
  7. How do we include our minority employees in our discussions around race and other organisational challenges?
  8. How do we remove the language of fear that is so often associated with race in the workplace and ensure there is an open and honest conversation happening?
  9. How can we engage all of our employees in discussions around equality?
  10. How do we harness the skills and talent of our minority employees?
  11. How do we find suitable mentors (or better still sponsors) for our rising minority stars?
  12. How do we train our leaders and managers to understand racism and its
    challenges in our workplace?
  13. How can we hold ourselves to account?

Only once you have asked yourself all of the above questions and honestly considered your responses will you be in a position to confidently talk about race in your workplace. And indeed, only then will you be able to hold yourself to account.

Words by Mary Asante, Director at HRi.