HR and race in the workplace

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Racial inequality is under-discussed. Nervousness, denial and lack of vocal role models are contributing to a serious diversity problem organisations need to start talking about

It’s every author’s worst nightmare – suddenly becoming terrifyingly convinced that what you were planning to write isn’t interesting to people… is a non-issue.

This is exactly what Binna Kandola, co-founder and senior partner at Pearn Kandola, experienced when sharing details of his then-upcoming book Racism at Work: The Danger of Indifference at lunch with a senior D&I professional. “She said ‘thank goodness racism no longer exists in my organisation’. She was doing a lot on gender and said the women’s movement could learn a lot from the civil rights movement because it had achieved so much,” he recounts. “I thought ‘wow… I don’t have a book’.”

Fortunately Kandola kept the faith. Because the research he then conducted proved that this was definitely a subject meriting serious attention. It found that a shocking 60% of black and 42% of Asian people have experienced racism at work (compared to just 14% of white people), with one in five (20%) experiencing verbal or physical abuse.

Wider stats build on this disquieting picture. February 2017’s McGregor-Smith Review found that BAME employees are still being held back from workplace opportunities, resulting in a loss to the economy equivalent to 1.3% of GDP. It urged large employers to publish a breakdown of their workforces by race and pay band, to tackle a situation in which, as highlighted by Resolution Foundation research last year, black male graduates face an average pay penalty of 17% compared to white men, and Pakistani and Bangladeshi men 14% for non-graduates and 12% for graduates.

Just last month the TUC’s Racism Ruins Lives study found that 65% of BAME workers have suffered harassment at work in the last five years, while 49% have been treated unfairly. Almost two-thirds (62%) of black employees said racism at work impacted their mental health, with 56% saying it had impacted their work.

Yet race still apparently languishes towards the bottom of many organisations’ to-do lists, with the TUC report noting that discussion of racism at work remains “fairly muted”. The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and the British Academy of Management (BAM) report Delivering Diversity found that 75% of FTSE 100 companies set progression targets for gender but only 21% do the same for BAME. Exclusive research conducted by HR magazine for this piece found that while 69% of white HR professionals surveyed felt HR’s efforts on race equality at their organisation were as strong as in other areas of D&I, only 25% of BAME respondents agreed. In answer to the question ‘Does your organisation have a D&I lead who actively leads on race?’ 63% of respondents overall stated not.

“Some industries are ahead of others but I’ve been to diversity events where the whole conversation is about gender. Bluntly, that’s about white women,” confirms Raph Mokades, founder and managing director of contextual recruitment software firm Rare.

“By no means have we solved the women’s problem, but we can see representation has increased. That isn’t the case for race as far as I can tell almost anywhere in the UK,” says Sarah Guerra, director of diversity and inclusion at King’s College London.


Further reading

Opportunities in HR unequal feel BAME HRs

BAME equality held back by toxic cultures

Over half of BAME Brits told to be 'more realistic' about careers

Racial prejudice is still holding us back

Focus on gender diversity seen as barrier to ethnic diversity


A complex question

So why are the majority of employers only just (possibly prompted by government rumblings of ethnicity pay gap reporting) scratching their heads and turning their attention to race? Or, even more disturbingly, denying that workplace racism exists altogether?

The response from many might understandably be to point to the mounting number of demands currently being brought to HR’s door. “You think: ‘I can’t do everything’,” concedes Mokades. “You have your colleagues banging on about this gender pay gap business… They’re talking about women on boards…”

Yet for many organisations race should be a strong second to gender if not on par with it, he highlights. “If you’re running a business in a very white area it might be that social background or LGBT+ is more pressing than race… But pushing half of the London population is black or brown and more than half of school-age children in London are black or brown. So in that context I’m not sure you shouldn’t look at gender and race together,” he muses.

“D&I is a business-critical issue; our undergraduate population is more than 50% BAME,” agrees Guerra, adding though that “race is a much more complex question than gender”.

A large part of this complexity, Kandola reiterates, is down to organisations feeling bafflingly confident the problem has now pretty much been consigned to the past. His worry (chiming with sentiments expressed in Reni Eddo-Lodge’s 2017 bestselling book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race) is that for many, tackling racism and racial discrimination hasn’t even got as far as recognising the problem.

“I did a report for a tribunal where a guy was claiming racial discrimination; saying being stereotyped was holding him back,” he says. “The organisation said it didn’t recognise stereotypes of black men. That idea of not acknowledging them is where a lot of organisations are. So the implication is you must be wrong and it’s in your head.

“When my book came out a lot of people approached me on social media and that’s the experience they were recounting… the fact we don’t accept racism exists says ‘therefore there’s no need to talk about it’. That’s more pervasive than people denying sexism exists anymore.”

The problem, explains social psychologist and senior lecturer at Goldsmiths University of London Keon West, is confusion at the most basic level around what constitutes racist behaviour: “People say ‘we can’t be racist’ as they have this idea of what racism is and it’s really quite extreme.”

The assumptions underlying sexism (around women not being cut out for certain roles because of their childbearing capacity or innate physical and psychological differences) are misguided and highly damaging, points out Mokades. But they’re nowhere near as sinister and emotive as those lurking behind accusations of racism. “Men and women are biologically different, that’s a definite fact. But racism is creepier… you end up in the territory of eugenics, the Holocaust, this crazy stuff…”

“People still see race discrimination as something done by nasty people with nasty values,” agrees Tinu Cornish, director of SEA-Change Consultancy and chair of the Diversity and Inclusion at Work Group.

“[But] they’re not the ones managing graduate recruitment,” she points out, explaining that what people fail to realise is that the majority of racism occurring in workplaces is of a much more insidious variety. As born out by Business in the Community (BITC) stats finding that only one in 16 in management positions are BAME, most workplace racism today relates to rates of progression, seniority and pay, she says. In the words of Kandola: “Racism is like a virus that has mutated and become more subtle and oblique.”

Managing director of Challenge Consultancy Femi Otitoju explains that it’s not just about overall representation in the workforce and at senior levels and within more prestigious roles. Rather it’s also an issue of BAME individuals still being confined to more technical professions such as finance and IT. “If I go into an ExCo or boardroom and see one person of Asian descent I’d put money on it that they’re the CFO,” she says.

The notion that some ethnic minorities gravitate to certain professions because of their families’ influence is largely now a conveniently-upheld myth, she feels: “We’re looking at generations who have been born in this country and whose parents were born in this country. So… I think that’s much less these days.

“My sense it that where success is quantative rather than qualitative it’s easier for BAME people to succeed,” she says. “So your finances are either right or wrong… where the idea of success is somehow more subjective that is when it’s harder.”

Lazy social brains

Which brings us to the knotty but crucial question of what exactly is still going wrong? As articulated above, the answer for Otitoju and others lies in two words that have rocketed up the D&I and wider corporate agenda in recent years: unconscious bias. Or as Otitoju articulates it: a high level of unknowing subjectivity in deciding who’s suitable for what roles.

Professor of psychology at Durham University Richard Crisp explains the mechanism occurring when we unwittingly make decisions swayed by irrelevant factors. Neuroscientifically this is a reflection of “fundamental tendencies for people to prefer similarity”, he says, explaining the cognitive effort involved in processing the unfamiliar.

Characteristics of gender, age and race tend to fall foul most to our desire to easily categorise the world, says Crisp. But someone’s race is even more likely to trigger unconscious bias, he explains, because of contact theory – the logic that while ‘everyone has a mum’ and older relatives (and indeed will have experienced being different ages) ‘not everyone has a black friend’.

“The reason race is more prominent and more of an issue when it comes to unconscious bias is to do with the information available to you in your life and when growing up. It’s to do with exposure and contact,” says Crisp. This constitutes something of a vicious cycle, with our “psychological tendencies to want to group together with similar people” preventing us from gaining the sort of contact that would encourage us to see people from different ethnic backgrounds as similar people to group with in the first place, he explains.

The result in the workplace, says Otitoju, is “simply that [people] find it difficult, if they have an implicit association with a particular group and are used to seeing them in certain roles, to interpret what they’re doing [in a different role] as successful.

“And culturally we might have different ideas of what success looks like,” she adds. “My approach to creativity [as a BAME individual] might be very different from the mainstream.”

Mokades agrees on the significance of the unconscious conflation of objective competencies with how white, heterosexual, cisgender males have historically approached (or been encouraged to approach) creativity or leadership say. “Businesses will have a competency like leadership or communication but it’s not properly defined so you end up with proxies that are culturally specific,” he says. “So it’s ‘did he look me in the eye? Did he have a firm handshake?’”

“It’s the extrovert thing; we have a real notion of the white, male, hero-type leadership,” agrees Cornish. (“The trouble is that’s not actually effective when we look at what we need in the world right now,” she adds.)

Exacerbating the issue is the fact that BAME individuals, whether their cultural background allows them to exhibit these supposedly desirable traits or not, are much less likely to come across as confident extroverts because of their likely life experiences, explains Shakil Butt, founder of HR Hero 4 Hire and former HR and OD director at Islamic Relief Worldwide.

“I’m the exception in liking to stand out in a group… but for many it’s safer to be in the background,” he says. “And I get that; when I was at school I wanted to blend in because if the bullies noticed me that would lead to pain.”

Something more sinister

But for many, categorising the issue as the most extreme manifestation of our brains’ unconscious discomfort with difference – or natural tendency to categorise people according to our limited experience of what ‘people like them do’ – isn’t the whole picture. What’s often percolating down through our subconsciouses when faced with racial difference – and explaining why we still prize the ‘white, male, hero-type leader’ to such an extent – is something much more unsettling, says West.

“There is an element of basic neuroscience and people preferring simple explanations of the world. But we have to be careful with that… There are reasons we’ve found it useful in the past to believe Chinese men are more effeminate… black men are more powerful and animal-like. These are all to do with history and how the UK has interacted with these nations in the past and the stereotypes it was useful to have.”

“Discrimination is worse if you’re black and if you’re Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Muslim… less so if you’re Indian. Which gives you an idea why this still exists; it’s still a hierarchy,” agrees Kandola. “That was created in the time of the slave trade.”

West is also sceptical of the degree to which decision-makers are always unconscious of these associations. There exists a complicated state somewhere between purely unconscious and conscious bias, he explains: “In control experiments we see there is some awareness of race factoring into how people behave. And people are not only aware, there’s some discomfort with it. So people try to keep it deliberately out of their thoughts, which shows they are on some level aware.”

So for West the issue specific to tackling racial discrimination isn’t just one of persuading people there’s a problem they’re entirely unaware of, but rather persuading them to confront something they on some level recognise but are intensely uncomfortable with.

Wider research backs this up. Only 38% of respondents to BITC’s Race at Work 2018: the McGregor-Smith Review one year on survey said their employers are comfortable talking about race in the workplace (with a higher degree of comfort around tackling gender, age and sexuality). A third (29%) of leaders polled for the CMI and BAM’s Delivering Diversity report said they were worried about discussing race for fear of using the wrong terminology.

Guerra points to the concept of white fragility – an idea gradually making its way into the public lexicon. “There’s a new conversation around white fragility… As a person of colour raising race you get loaded with the other person’s guilt and emotional concerns. So there’s a double bind,” she says.

Extreme nervousness persists around even the fundamentals of vocabulary in a way it doesn’t for other protected characteristics, confirms Otitoju. She adds that media and social media responses to blunders by high-profile individuals such as Amber Rudd and Liam Neeson can be unhelpful.

“I’ve had it where I’m being shown around and someone says ‘as you can see Femi we don’t have many people here who are-’ and then they falter… In the end they gestured in my direction and said ‘like yourself’. I said ‘you mean black?’ And they said ‘oh yes absolutely, thank you’.

“People are so frightened of being accused of being racist. I think it’s devastating,” she says. “The Amber Rudd thing [the work and pensionssecretary was criticised for referring to shadow home secretary Diane Abbott as “coloured” in a recent radio interview]… Here’s someone who has understood the complexities of intersectionality… But she’s been vilified basically for not having black people in her life and so not being au fait with the language. So what’s going to happen when people see that? The net result will be even fewer people being bold enough to raise the race issue.”

Butt shares similar feelings in relation to actor Liam Neeson recently causing outrage by relating how he once walked the streets with a weapon hoping to kill an innocent black man after someone close to him was raped by a black male. While his comments were naive and badly put, attacking him for past behaviour he himself identified as wrong is unhelpful, Butt says: “My initial reaction was ‘I don’t think I like that’. But he had the courage to admit he’d come a long way. And it’s better to get these things out in the open.”

Positive action

So what must employers and HR teams do to reboot the conversation and genuinely tackle racial inequality?

West’s advice: realise it’s not all about unconscious bias training. “I think so much of the race conversation has been hijacked by the need to say ‘we are good people ’, so that quite a few practical issues have been overlooked. A lot has been swallowed up by the unconscious bias rhetoric and the idea we can simply just handle unconscious bias and be done with it.”

The typical unconscious bias programme being rolled out at organisations can even have negative impacts, explains Alexandra Kalev, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University. Her research (with Harvard University professor Frank Dobbin, studying around 800 US companies) found that while mandatory unconscious bias training is by far the most popular, it “actually creates a backlash” of people pushing against being told not to do something.

Another issue is that such training “cognitively increases our stereotypes”, she says. “It’s like when you’re on a diet trying not to think about food.” And people can leave such training with a sense of validation; a sense that everyone has biases, it’s not their fault and so there’s a limit to what they can do.

To make such training more effective it should be voluntary not mandatory, advises Kalev, so that “the important principle of engaging managers with designing the change” is observed. By the same logic employers should aim for “a promotion focus” rather than a “prevention focus”, says Crisp. “If it’s ‘this is a bad thing we shouldn’t do’ that’s really bad motivating behaviour.

“In contrast a promotion focus highlights why you should do something… so focusing on the creativity that can be fostered with more diverse teams for example.”

But unconscious bias training should still be just the tip of the iceberg. Those struggling to know where to start in launching a more comprehensive approach can apply some of their work and learnings on gender across, says Cornish: “I know some organisations have been criticised because they’ve done gender first, but I always say ‘well you know what you know now. So use that confidence and understanding of what works’.”

Cornish highlights the power of sponsorship instead of mentorship. “Mentoring for women and BAME people is all about ‘these poor things, they’re not quite developed, they don’t know their leadership stuff’. But for men it’s ‘if you’re going to make the next move you need to do this type of project or connect with this person’,” she says, explaining that sponsorship is much more helpful in apportioning accountability for getting someone promoted.

By the same logic BAME leadership programmes should – like women in leadership programmes – involve line managers to avoid it being about ‘fixing’ the BAME person or woman, she adds.

Accountability in general is the name of the game, agrees West: “I would never have an organisation say to me ‘we simply aren’t making profits, shall we have a two-hour profit-making training session?’ They would specifically identify the branches not making profits… They would remove the barriers, implement new systems, and more importantly say: ‘John if this branch doesn’t make a profit you’re fired. And Sally if yours does you’re promoted’.”

Which is where, similarly to gender, some feel legislative intervention from government could be effective. The most notable political intervention in the offing is the extension of gender pay gap reporting requirements to ethnicity pay gaps, with the first reporting deadline predicted by the CIPD as (at the earliest) 2021.

“I’ll never say no to political interventions,” says West. “I think people who say ‘we can’t legislate people’s hearts and minds’ have done a great job of forgetting history; 200 years ago black people and women were property but then someone stepped in and changed the law.”

For CEO and founder of Caerus Executive and former FTSE HRD Frank Douglas, a legislative “shock to the system” is needed to redress a situation in which the number of BAME FTSE 100 company directors has actually declined, according to the first annual update on the Parker Review last October. The voluntary nature of the review’s target for each FTSE 100 firm to appoint at least one BAME board-level director by 2021 is clearly not working, he says: “I think unless we have mandatory quotas we’ll still be talking about this in 30 years.”

But others are less convinced about applying measures such as pay gap reporting and quotas across from gender. “You can see what’s happening with gender pay gap reporting, it’s being gamified,” says Kandola.

Otitoju adds the importance of legislative action not just around workplace inequality but for all areas of society. “Pay gap reporting should absolutely be extended, as should attendance gap reporting not just in higher education but right the way through school. Because for some ethnic groups by the time they’re out of education it’s almost too late.”

This is where organisations as well as government must be alive to wider societal discrimination and consider outreach efforts to do their bit in mitigating this, says Mokades. He adds the importance of recognising that “quite a substantial number of economically-disadvantaged people will be from ethnic minority backgrounds.”

“There is a big difference in life outcomes depending on which ethnic background you’re from. If you look at the EHRC’s Is Britain Fairer? report you’ll see that certain groups are struggling to derive the benefits of education or healthcare or housing,” confirms deputy chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and former HRD Caroline Waters.

Which makes interventions around contextual recruitment and re-examining on-paper hiring requirements critical to tackling racial inequality, says Guerra: “We have very high entry standards for students, so we’ve had to examine are there students not getting there because they’ve not had the opportunity to get three As? Similarly with staff, if you say you want the best talent [you have to ask] who’s set that definition?”

Unique challenges

But while similar interventions to those taken on gender and class may be helpful to some extent, it’s important not to overlook the nuances of racial inequality. “One of the challenges we find is, where organisations have a degree of confidence in having tackled gender there is an assumption that what worked there will work with ethnicity,” says Doyin Atewologun, director of the Gender, Leadership and Inclusion Centre at Cranfield School of Management.

She reiterates the familiarity and contact challenge unique to a large extent to race, adding: “To add even more complexity, when we break down the stereotypes about different ethnicities they can be very different.”

While most people will be aware of stereotypes such as “the Asian community being seen as more techie, mild and humble” and black people “aggressive [and] lazy…”, most won’t be aware of the complicated way these interact with other characteristics, she explains.

“When we overlay ethnicity onto gender for example, some research suggests that because of the aggressive stereotype black women can ‘get away’ with being more forthright because it’s expected of them. An Asian woman can ‘get away’ with being more mild in a leadership position without being seen as not firm enough.”

Which all leads back – along with a pervading nervousness around talking about race and acknowledging racism – to an even greater need to listen to BAME individuals’ experiences. This is where mentoring is perhaps of value after all. Otitoju explains reverse mentoring’s power in creating safe spaces for leaders to listen and learn.

“That’s priceless. They can shut the door and ask what it’s really like for that person in the organisation,” she says. She adds though the importance of leaders taking ownership for keeping up with politically-correct terminology: “There’s a group of people who assert their right to be ‘brown’. Do people understand that? If not go and find out. We all have smartphones…”

Many would point to the importance of getting people of different ethnicities to spend as much time with each other as possible, far beyond individual mentoring relationships. Organisations try to overthink and formalise activities around tackling bias, feels Kalev. When in fact overcoming prejudice is an area where the maxim ‘show don’t tell’ comes into its own: “Having people of different ethnicities working together on the same team is really powerful. Because getting to know someone reduces stereotypes without having to do anything too complicated. Just put people together.”

Though appreciating the unique challenges of different diversity characteristics is important, such an approach will avoid dealing with different identities in too much of a siloed fashion, says Atewologun. What organisations must now start to get to grips with, rather than moving from one protected characteristic to another, is the concept of intersectionality, she says.

“I was coaching someone who had a meeting with a manager who said ‘let’s get you on the women’s leadership programme’, but within the same week got an email from HR saying ‘we’re launching our BAME talent programme and want you on that’. She said to me: ‘what part of me needs greatest development?’ These are the questions we’re now asking people to grapple with – to divide their identities.”

“The challenge we have is around intersectionality,” agrees CIPD membership director David D’Souza. “If we start just talking about race we’re not talking about gender, if we start just talking about gender we’re not talking about disability…”

This is where robust evidence-based HR processes come into their own, he stresses:“We need to make sure that hiring processes are fair, that people are being assessed on the quality of their contribution or their potential. That should hopefully help broader equality.”

“HR has a big role to play in ensuring clear career frameworks so everyone knows what the criteria for progression are,” agrees Waters. “Then it doesn’t really matter whether biases are conscious or unconscious because you’re making sure you make decisions based on relevant criteria.”

Butt points out how vital this will be as manifestations of racism become more complex amid anti-immigration rhetoric: “When you think about race most still think about BAME, but it’s much wider than that. A consequence of Brexit is we’ve seen more people from Eastern European backgrounds being more conscious around difference.”

No grounds for complacency

A call to action for all HR professionals then: to not only get the conversation on race going and find out the true extent of the problem in their organisation. But also to ensure hiring, promotion and pay decisions are carried out in a way that wards against all kinds of subjectivity – whether conscious, unconscious or anything in between – towards all individuals.

To which Kandola adds the encouragement that things have hugely improved, with further change more than possible with the right approach: “Things have changed in my lifetime in terms of less acceptance of very overt racism. And we can’t dismiss that because that really does make life better on a daily basis for a lot of people.”

But this – given tensions arising as a result of Brexit, and around recent terrorist incidents – is no grounds for complacency. Particularly for those who need to accept as their very first step that as a nation and collection of workplaces we still have a problem with race. And that now is the time to start talking, and most importantly: listening.

This piece appeared in the May 2019 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk

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