The time for talking is over,” proclaimed February’s McGregor-Smith Review into race in the workplace, a call for action echoed loudly by Sandra Kerr OBE, race equality director for charity Business in the Community (BITC).
In her role, Kerr campaigns for race diversity in the UK as a business imperative, but proactivity is required from all of us, she argues. Workplace diversity is no longer simply a matter of morality but also of business survival and economic buoyancy. “Groupthink is expensive,” she warns. “McKinsey’s research, Diversity Matters, shows a 35% financial uplift with ethnicity representation. Think of the innovation that comes with diversity, the connection with customers.
“Then there’s the demographic shift: one in four children in UK primary schools are from ethnic minority backgrounds. That’s your upcoming talent pool. We need more black and ethnic minority (BAME) role models so that the one in four can be inspired. The McGregor-Smith review talks about a potential £24bn boost to the economy if BAME people progressed in work at the same rate as their white counterparts, so getting this right is important for everyone.”
Rise in intolerance
Having won an OBE in 2012 for services to black and minority ethnic people, and spearheaded the BITC’s ground-breaking Race at Work survey in partnership with YouGov in 2015, Kerr has been doing her bit to identify and address the issues impacting the employment and progression of BAME individuals. BITC contributed substantially to the McGregor-Smith review and, in November, published a ‘best employers’ list based on ethnic diversity.
However, the progression of true equality now requires practical action – from ministers, employers and employees – to improve access to the jobs market for BAME people; enable career progression; and stamp out workplace bullying and discrimination – an issue highlighted strongly in BITC’s 2015 survey. Kerr believes that attitudes are spiralling backwards.
“We’ve heard of an uplift in intolerance since Brexit,” she says. “I’ve also heard, anecdotally, of people having racist things said to them in the street; we thought we’d moved past that.”
Racist rhetoric in the US is also impacting behaviour: “With social media, anything one country does goes global. It’s outrageous what some people are putting out there. It reinforces the need for employers to take a zero approach to intolerance.
“It’s an opportunity to influence change,” she says. “Where employers stand against intolerance, it raises the consciousness level inside and outside of the workplace.” This approach should also be customer facing: “Tell staff: ‘We’ll make customers aware of our standards’.”
Reviewing your public image can help increase workforce diversity. “Look at your website: are there any images of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds? That’s your window on the world,” Kerr advises. The next step is to gather data.
“Get a snapshot of what your organisation looks like in terms of ethnicity at different levels. That will focus where you put your energies. If the problem’s in recruitment, start monitoring attraction and selection strategies, including interviews.
Or you might find that you are well-represented ethnically, but proportionally at entry-level; if so you’ll need to think about promotion and break-through strategies.
“Once you attract people, it’s finding a way to connect them to the organisation, to enable them to survive and rise,” continues Kerr.
“We encourage employers to set up an employee or affinity network. People who feel connected to an organisation are more likely to stay.”
For Kerr, two-way mentorship is an important tool for improving diversity at senior levels and helping to create inclusive leaders.
“I’d encourage reverse mentoring,” she says. “Senior leaders mentoring junior staff from different backgrounds, but also junior staff sharing their challenges. I hope we can inspire more two-way conversations so we break down barriers with people who, because everything has been straightforward for them, don’t understand what everyone else is going on about.
“When I was progressing in my career, I was essentially mentoring a senior (white male) colleague, raising his awareness. It’s something all BAME individuals can do: share their stories. Those who reach senior levels can also talk about how they navigated challenges. Storytelling around progression is inspiring.”
‘Soft networks’ enable informal advocacy. “Leaders exposed to diverse talent think more inclusively when opportunities open up,” explains Kerr. “It’s about creating awareness in advance. When a manager needs to fill a position within 24 hours, they’re not going to try anything new. Build rapport and connections, and expose leaders to diverse talent, so when decisions are made, you really do have a diverse range of people to pick from.”