HR systems for D&I are broken – we must unlearn what has become unconscious

Written by
Sheryl Miller, entrepreneur, coach and author

15 Dec 2020

15 Dec 2020 • by Sheryl Miller, entrepreneur, coach and author

2020 has made matters of D&I impossible to ignore. For Sheryl Miller, all that remains is to tear down the old narrative and replace with braver conversations.

For all the social progress the modern world has made in order to become more inclusionary, to verify the basic human rights of the marginalised – whether BAME, disabled or LGBTQ+ – discrimination persists. If recent world events would have us believe, it can feel like progress has actually regressed. 

The dichotomy of viewpoints relating to diversity and inclusion across the spectrum, if anything, underscores just how far we have to go before we can truly dismantle structural racism. 2020 has been a lesson in resilience and adaptation; a survival test of sorts. It’s also been self-revelationary – not least for those who have come to realise that perhaps they’re not quite as ‘tolerant’ as they once believed themselves to be.

People previously mute on matters about race now feel triggered enough to say something about the mobilised Black Lives Matter Movement, the destruction of controversial statues, of corporates ‘celebrating’ Black History Month, of why we are all still constantly banging on about diversity this and inclusion that.

Then, of course, there’s the silence – interpreted either as a quiet acceptance of the status quo or as a result of a kind of fear induced verbal paralysis. This fear comes in many forms: a fear of accountability for the non-delivery (or non-existence) of D&I initiatives; of the part employers and organisations unconsciously play in upholding discriminatory systems; a fear of saying the ‘wrong thing’; or a fear of saying something only to be pulled up as being opportunistic and insincere.

Uncovering unconscious bias

Conversations around race and D&I have become so divisive and tribal that it’s dangerously shutting down conversations, converting the issue into an elephant in the room. And yet this is precisely why such conversations must persist. Such is the sheer complexity of discrimination that it manifests in various forms – from the flagrant to the indiscernible. We may not even know the extent to which our own unconscious biases go. But it is the latter that is the most dangerous, quietly flourishing under a more socially acceptable guise but effecting the same injury. 

We must accept, not deny, the existence of the problem. We must accept that sometimes ‘wrong’ things will be said. We must accept how vital it is to embark on these conversation topics even if it is messy and combustible. Because change is simply impossible without it. 

I have made a career out of helping organisations have better, more inclusive cultures. I have written a book about diversity and inclusion. That doesn’t mean that I’m not tired of having the same old discussions. On the contrary, I am weary and exhausted about how rational debate and well intentioned initiatives and training have barely made a dent on discrimination. 

Take the diversity row in which Birmingham’s 2022 Commonwealth Games have become embroiled. How did we end up with no people of colour on this board in one of the UK’s most multi-cultural cities? What was the hiring process that led to this homogenously appointed, white-washed board? 

A broken system

Something is wrong with our systems. HR processes have become a theatre upon which unconscious biases are played and where racism wears a mantle of practical invisibility. Legislation on discrimination is nothing without rigorous governance around hiring, talent management and succession. 

My advice? Tear up the old unconscious bias training manuals and start building a culture of inclusion by creating a safe space for brave conversations. Where the various expressions for pain, anger and frustration can be contained and acknowledged; where empathy, patience and understanding can be exercised; where education humanised by real experiences can be shared. 

As for those broken systemic processes? It must be picked apart. For only in its deconstruction may we analyse and then unlearn what has become inherently unconscious. 

Sheryl Miller is an award winning serial entrepreneur, business coach and author of Smashing Stereotypes: How To Get Ahead When You’re The Only _____ In The Room.