Written by
Mary Appleton
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Published
05 Jan 2018

We need to get serious about race in business

05 Jan 2018 • by Mary Appleton

Unemployment among black and minority ethnic (BAME) individuals is almost double those of white – indicative of the racial bias which still permeates society today. We must find a new dialogue to help truly change attitudes in the workplace and beyond, argues Mary Appleton

It was certainly one of those ‘head in hands’ moments for the advertising execs when recently, beauty giant Dove released a Facebook advert which showed a black woman turning into a white woman, supposedly after using Dove body lotion. The white woman then removes her top and turns into a Middle Eastern woman.

The online advert sparked public outcry, with accusations of racism and calls to boycott Dove’s products. The brand later admitted it had “missed the mark” with the campaign.

Whatever conversation was going on at Dove HQ, sanctioning the campaign was a serious error of judgement, not to mention a commercial calamity. It’s unclear who exactly was being targeted, but for many, the underlying message conveyed – however unintentional – is indicative of the unconscious racial bias and prejudice still present in society today.

Prejudice permeates society

Indeed, in the UK, authors called David are more likely to be on bestseller lists than writers with ethnic-sounding names.

Black pupils are three times more likely to be excluded than their fellow pupils. And although 3% of the population of England and Wales are black, they account for 12% of the prison population.

Prejudice permeates every area – the workplace being no exception. Job applicants with ‘white sounding’ names are much more likely to get a call-back for jobs than those with ethnic names.

Accordingly, unemployment among black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) workers with degrees is 5.9% compared with 2.3% for their white peers.

Despite Tesco chairman John Allan’s assertion that white men are an “endangered species” in UK boardrooms, and view that “if you are female and from an ethnic background, preferably both, you are in an extremely propitious period,” the reality for BAME individuals in the workplace is altogether different.

Research conducted by search firm Green Park reveals that 82% of ethnic minority leaders do not trust the organisations they work for, believing there is institutional prejudice against minorities in the UK.

And two-thirds (66%) of ethnic minority leaders do not believe there will be a significant improvement in minority representation at board levels in two years’ time.

Althea Efunshile, the former deputy chief executive of Arts Council England,  was blocked from joining the all-white board of Channel 4 by culture secretary Karen Bradley, despite claiming to improve BAME representation. The other four – white – candidates were subsequently appointed.

“It’s surprising how many businesses are still in denial – while there have been measures put in place to improve diversity in business, there is still a vast amount to be done, especially at senior levels that require specialist insight to deal with prejudice and perceptions,” comments Raj Tulsiani, chief executive of Green Park.

“There is no point having programmes at entry level ensuring greater diversity if these candidates become quickly disillusioned, seeing a ‘ceiling’ they will not be able to break through; it’s like filling a bucket with a visible hole in it.”

But if progress is not made at senior levels, how can those who begin at the lowest stratums ever make headway?

Beyond the boardroom

This ‘problem’ of true representation goes well beyond the corporate world. Both Oxford and Cambridge universities were recently accused of ‘social apartheid’ over their failure to offer places to black students. Ten of the 32 Oxford colleges, and six of the 31 Cambridge colleges, did not offer a single place to a black British pupil with A-levels in 2015.

Similarly, the failure of the 2016 Brit awards to nominate a single black artist in any major category caused a huge outcry, prompting a backlash from artists such as Stormzy and Laura Mvula, and the emergence of the hashtag #BritsSoWhite, which went viral.

Even comedian Matt Lucas has admitted that if he were to remake cult television series Little Britain, he would “avoid playing black characters” because “society has moved on and it would upset people.” 

Finding the right language

Tulsiani believes that many people still see prejudice in linear terms, but deny structural prejudice in institutions, such as outright bias/ discrimination based on race.

He suggests that it is often insidious and those responsible may not even realise they are perpetuating prejudice. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of respondents to Green Park’s survey believe the majority of workplace prejudice is unconscious. 

But when tackling the issue of racism, many firms are struggling to find an appropriate dialogue and language, which, for Tulsiani, demonstrates a lack of “credible purpose”.

He says: “The more business talks about it, the more ‘normal’ it becomes, but unless promises are kept there will be an increase in thinking along the lines of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s ‘why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’.

“This would be disastrous as people often lack the right language to discuss race and fear sounding discriminatory, which won’t be helped by dissipating trust caused by well-meaning generalist policies and programmes. Specialist problems require specialist lived experience and compassion to be  sustainable and successful.”

In an attempt to highlight diversity across various fields, including employment, in October, the government launched a Race Disparity Audit which features ethnicity facts and figures from across the UK.

Dubbed “the central resource in the battle to defeat ethnic injustice” by Prime Minister Theresa May, it is hoped that the data collected will help initiate discussion and review from business leaders and authorities on how to break down the challenges preventing many BAME people from achieving success in the workplace.

But it's important that this is not simply another report to highlight – rather than address – a problem, with little change to follow.

Examples of good work

Turning to the business arena, while progress may be slow in practical terms, there are beacons of hope among UK corporations, as highlighted by Business in the Community’s Race Equality awards, launched in November 2017, recognising organisations taking a comprehensive and strategic approach to tackling racial inequalities within their businesses and committed to generating real change. 

One such example is retail giant John Lewis, which for the past three years has been taking positive, practical steps to address racial inequality within the partnership.

In May 2014, the personnel director raised concerns that BAME representation at management levels was much lower than in the general UK population and there were no indications suggesting improvement. Satisfaction scores from BAME partners (employees) in its annual engagement survey were also below those of white partners.

The business conducted detailed studies of BAME partners’ experiences through data analysis and focus groups, which confirmed the need for action. As a result, chairman Charlie Mayfield set the goal of having 2,000 managers (10% of all managers) from BAME backgrounds by 2020, double the figure of 2014.

This made John Lewis one of the few UK businesses to introduce a goal for increasing BAME representation in management positions.

Although the goal acknowledges the effect of the lack of role models on partners’ belief in opportunities to progress, the business explicitly stated that positive discrimination should not take place and the goal was an aspiration not a quota. Improvements needed to be sustainable and therefore the focus took culture into account as well as numbers.

“Inclusion is the most important thing to invest in and to be more inclusive requires people to understand others’ perspectives,” explains Nicola Paul, diversity and inclusion senior manager.

“We are developing our organisation’s ability to understand people from different backgrounds and cultures in order to increase our cultural intelligence.”

The organisation has invested heavily in talking about the business case for diversity through its internal magazine, on social media and its BAME Network, Unity, which provides a platform to showcase BAME role models both within and outside the business.

From a diversity perspective, Paul explains the primary concern is to ensure John Lewis is working to increase the representation of minority groups in the partnership.

And progress is being made. BAME representation in management positions has increased from 8.3% in 2014 to 8.7% in 2017, which is in line with projections, and BAME representation at senior levels (branch managers and above) has increased from 3.7% in 2016 to 4.1% in 2017.
So what can other businesses learn from John Lewis’ example?

“Before doing anything else, you need to create the drive and motivation among the business to get behind diversity and inclusion,” suggests Paul.

“Some people will believe in the moral reasons for greater inclusion and others will want to know the business rationale, so it’s vital to appeal to both the hearts and minds of people.”

She believes that first, you need to communicate the business case for diversity and continually talk about it. The second step is to identify diverse role models from around the business. And third, encourage leaders to make a personal commitment towards diversity and inclusion.

Beyond these measures, introducing a range of different initiatives, such as inclusivity training (preferably woven into existing training offers), access to working experiences, and mentoring/ sponsoring of underrepresented groups in your business, will all contribute to success.

For Paul, this ultimately centres around “getting people building relationships with people who are different to them.”

Leading from the top

Meanwhile, Tulsiani is keen to point out that diversity should not simply be “handed to the HR director to sort out” but rather something that is led from the top with regular executive support.

He suggests optimising your supply chain by working with suppliers with lived experience and credibility that diverse candidates already trust; creating talent programmes to engage and progress diverse talent (and regularly reporting on this), and having credible data to support your efforts.

“It’s imperative to know where diverse talent sits in your organisation, and concordance between their views and those of customers, to be able to ensure equal opportunity in development and progression,” he adds. 

Finally, he is adamant that difficult conversations on race and difference must be tackled: “People need to have greater accountability; 64% of ethnic minority leaders say there is no organisational accountability for failed diversity initiatives.

"Your organisation’s strategy must be open and accountable, making top-down public and transparent commitments to change and placing people in charge of delivering this, including the board, executive and supply chain.”

Starting the conversation

Let’s face it, the subject of race can be a delicate one. But this is exactly why we need to start talking about it. As leaders, we must be prepared to recognise the problems we face, to talk openly about inequality, and to take action to abolish it – in all areas of society. We owe this to the next generation, and future talent will expect it.

Indeed, Deloitte’s recent report, The radical transformation of diversity and inclusion, argued there is a growing generational gap in how D&I is defined in today’s workplaces.

It highlights that “millennials, who will comprise nearly 75% of the workforce by 2025, believe inclusion is the support for a collaborative environment that values open participation from people with different ideas and perspectives… in stark contrast to prior generations who traditionally consider it from the perspectives of representation and assimilation.”

Ultimately, our life at work is permeated by a series of encounters with those around us.

When conversations are motivating and challenging (and yes, sometimes uncomfortable), and take place in an environment of inclusion, where everybody’s perspective is acknowledged, we ultimately all gain a richer experience.

In turn, this encourages empowerment, collaboration and performance – because as a result of those varied perspectives, everyone becomes stronger.

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