The CHRO's role in promoting BAME talent and ethnic diversity

Written by
Billy Dexter & Niren Thanky
Heidrick & Struggles

16 Jan 2018

16 Jan 2018 • by Billy Dexter & Niren Thanky

The view from the C-suite still looks nothing like the diverse world outside, so how can leaders address this?

In the UK, just 4% of CEOs and 6% of board members in the FTSE100 are black and minority ethnic (BAME), despite members of this community making up 14% of the working-age population.

In the US, 37% of the private-sector workforce is non-white, but just 13% of executives are from BAME backgrounds.

The importance of diversity to team and company performance should now be a given; yet the nationalism that fuelled the Brexit decision and the election of US President Donald Trump is reminding HR leaders on both sides of the Atlantic that progress on diversity cannot be taken for granted. If companies are to reach an increasingly diverse population of customers, suppliers, and partners – and if they are to do the right thing –CHROs must instigate difficult conversations in three areas:

1. Are we meaningfully involved with BAME communities?

‘Diversity’ is a big bucket. Too few companies have a clear definition of precisely which communities they want to connect with – let alone a familiarity with them.

By contrast, forward-looking companies have specific communities in mind, and engage with them directly. Forming genuine relationships with these communities helps move companies past ‘tick box’ behaviours that may stymie diversity efforts. For example, some companies participate in diversity forums or programmes that send participants to networking opportunities organised specifically for BAME executives (a practice we find more common in the US than the UK).

The Executive Leadership Council in the US is a good example of a professional development and networking organisation that benefits and inspires existing BAME executives.

If you don’t already participate in your target communities, determine where they are and what organisations matter to them. If these organisations don’t exist, could you create one? 

2. Who’s in our pipeline (and do we have one)?

Many companies are hindered by inherent biases. To fill your pipeline with BAME talent, start by understanding that the journeys of these employees will be different to those of white employees.

The best universities, for example, are not as accessible to all populations, so hiring only from the top ones means your pipeline will likely be whitewashed.

EY, for example, removed its minimum grade requirements and added a ‘blind CV’ programme to university recruiting, to fight unconscious bias in hiring decisions: the number of recruits who were the first in their family to go to university increased by 7%.

Similarly, a global bank we’ve studied expanded its focus on historically black US colleges and universities to identify colleges with rising Latino populations, bolstering its reach into communities in which they previously had little traction.

Some companies also conduct periodic talent-mapping exercises to create detailed snapshots of BAME executives in a particular specialty (say, clinical development in pharmaceuticals).

Your company also needs to demonstrate it is a destination for BAME talent. Making a vocal commitment to issues your target population cares about is one step. You also need to role model diversity at the right level.

If you want a pipeline filled with BAME talent but all your thought leaders and executives are white men, your appeal sounds hollow. A sincere approach to filling your pipeline recognises that these optics are important and incorporates a diagnostic review of how your company is currently seen by these target communities.

3. Does our BAME talent want to stay?

Many companies assume talent will rise in a meritocracy, but factors such as company culture and unconscious bias may undermine this.

Mentorship and sponsorship help retain BAME talent: ensure new hires have a mentor to smooth their integration into the team and a sponsor to help them gain prime assignments.

One global pharma company runs sponsorship programmes in each of its major divisions: by providing BAME executives with access to networking events, structured career plans and face time with senior colleagues its retention rate among diverse leaders is markedly higher than competitors’.

A true commitment to diversity starts with honest reflection about why the company doesn’t mirror its customer base. The CHRO is bestplaced to spark such conversations. By combining sincerity, authenticity and consistency in their diversity efforts, CHROs can help their organisations become genuinely inclusive.


Billy Dexter is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles' Chicago office. He is the Americas' regional diversity leader. He co-leads the Diversity Advisory Services Practice that assists clients in creating diverse leadership teams.

Niren Thanky is a member of the global life sciences practice, based in London.

Heidrick & Struggles