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HR needs to take accountability for black representation

This week marked the second anniversary of George Floyd’s death - why aren’t we seeing more black leaders at the top of UK organisations?

Despite global outrage, marches, pledges, brand marketing, impact initiatives, and the launch of various high-powered groups, the sad fact remains that in 2022 the dial on black representation in the UK’s senior leadership positions has not moved.

Indeed, according to the Parker Review on Race and Inclusion, while board roles are opening up for other ethnic groups, for those with black heritage it remains almost impossible to gain access or acceptance.

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In HR itself there hasn’t been a black director on the executive management team of a FTSE business since 2014.

Meanwhile on the bottom rung of the career ladder things are no better. Despite a tight labour market, black unemployment is still running at double the rate for the rest of the UK economy, at 8.9%.

This is a criminal waste of talent at a time when the UK economy is under such strain.

So, what’s going on?

There are high-profile groups who understandably highlight major wrongs, the failing civil rights, and the broad sweep of systemic racism.

Yet articulated in this way the challenges we face can seem so vast as to make it hard to see where accountability lies, and so overwhelming as to make it difficult to understand how breakthroughs are to be made?

Disturbed by the lack of cut through but undaunted by the challenge, a charity – The Black Leadership Advisory Council (BLAC) - formed by four female black HR directors and their allies - have decided that far more detailed attention must be given to the crucial role of HR and whether it is helping or hindering in the battle for progress.

As we know HR sits at the heart of many major institutions, overseeing who gets in and who gets on, shaping leadership development, overseeing promotion, controlling talent reviews, deciding who gets paid what, and listening to the grievances and complaints of staff who get overlooked.

Given such all-pervasive a role, BLAC argues now is the right time to take a closer look at the influence HR has, and whether it could be more effective in helping unpick systemic racism in business.

Research by independent member of the charity Marcelle Moncrieffe-Johnson certainly seems to support that view.

She has identified that much current HR practice is compounding issues of systemic racism, finding that black people often had a ‘deficit discourse’ attributed to them by HR functions, which has in turn led to businesses addressing black people’s perceived individual inadequacies rather than dealing with the biased culture which surrounds them.

Such discrimination increased the further a black person climbed the career ladder, with white colleagues often expressing surprise at their professional presence in the corridors of power.

Indeed, research shows that many HR managers are blind to the significant role they personally play in continuing discrimination of non-white employees, because they are engaging in what Moncrieffe describes as benevolent acts - despite best intentions, actually position the ‘othered group’ as inferior.

This mindset of being ‘willing to help’, often leads to what could be referred to as ‘benevolent discrimination,’ a structural and subtle form of discrimination, which makes its perpetrators blind to its effects, and prohibits HR professionals from seeing how they directly contribute to black discrimination.

It poses the question, are many of the diversity management practices put forward by HR and diversity and inclusion (D&I) directors, not only ineffective in achieving D&I goals but may actually be having an opposite and hostile impact on black minority groups?

Do we need to ask whether HR are, by signalling the need for special help or special treatment, emphasising ill-founded negative stereotypes?

What is needed now is a comprehensive and critical appraisal of the impact HR practices are having on diversity, equity and inclusion particularly when it comes to culture, leadership development, recruitment and promotion.

Above all, black leadership representation must be addressed. To date we have failed to fix a leaky pipeline. Much of the best black talent joining business is deciding to leave or to opt out in other ways.

A significant number are leaving to join a burgeoning black entrepreneur community. It is a sad reflection of current people practices that people with commercial flair, creativity, and leadership are insufficiently valued to find a place at senior levels.

How can the HR function now come together to reset this agenda?


Norman Pickavance is CEO of the Financial Inclusion Alliance and chief enabler of The Black Leadership Advisory Council