· 3 min read · Features

Employers must make a sustained commitment to racial equality in the workplace


Organisations such as BT and the Ministry of Defence, both winners in our 2009 race diversity index, are leading the way in race diversity policies. They should be celebrated for putting race firmly on the business agenda and sustaining this commitment during tough times.

As members of Race for Opportunity, the organisations featured in our report all recognise an important business challenge; that 33 years after the passing of the landmark Race Relations Act, ethnic minorities are still underrepresented in the UK workforce.

Ethnic minorities currently make up 11% of the UK's working population. This figure is on the increase, but our workplace and social inclusion policies are not changing at the same pace. Urgent action is needed and I believe that employers can make a real difference.

What really sets these organisations apart from their peers is the commitment to monitoring and reporting on their workforce profiles. Without facing up to the problem and gathering this data, tackling race inequality is impossible.

I strongly urge those organisations who consider themselves to be progressive employers, but are absent from this index, to start monitoring and contribute to next year's benchmark.

However, none of these organisations currently have the solution. Our report highlights pockets of best practice, but it also identifies ‘problem areas' that we need to focus on. The progression of ethnic minorities to management and board-level remains the biggest challenge for all.

Our Race to the Top report, launched in January, revealed that only 1 in 15 employees at management level are from an ethnic minority. At the current rate of change, this gap is likely to widen in the future.

Providing networking opportunities for black and minority ethnic (BAME) employees and appointing a diversity champion within the company are two simple but effective ways of encouraging high potential employees from minority groups to aim higher. Creating a feeling of inclusion is crucial and carrying out employee surveys can foster engagement, while identifying areas of concern.

The Ministry of Defence (MOD), this year's top ranking public sector organisation, has two tailored leadership development schemes for high potential staff, with the overall aim of building the future leadership capacity and diversity of the Senior Civil Service.

The schemes provide a variety of learning opportunities, coaching and mentoring, a personalised leadership development plan and a bursary to support the individual's learning needs.   

My hope is that other government departments and private sector employers take inspiration from this and adapt the scheme for their employees.

Another challenge for most employers is supplier diversity - how organisations engage ethnic minority businesses in their supply chain and as business partners. This year's survey confirms that 52% of RfO network employers have a supplier diversity policy, up from 41% in 2008. However, this proportion is still discouragingly low and is a regression from the 59% recorded in 2006.  

Short-sighted organisations view supplier diversity as political correctness at their own peril. Globalisation is here to stay and those organisations will find their culturally diverse customer and client base increasingly disengaged and eventually spending their money elsewhere.

For organisations that do see commercial value in it, supplier diversity is still a daunting task. Information on BAME businesses in the UK is extremely poor and RfO is dedicated to pressing for more data from the Department for Business Innovations & Skills (DBIS). There is still some way to go, but the Equality Bill and proposed extension of public duties should drive the public sector to lead the way on this issue.  

In the private sector, some Race for Opportunity network employees have signed up to Kofi Annan's Global Impact Alliance, which has been welcomed as a positive and global intervention. At the very least, all employers should ensure that suppliers understand their commitment to supplier diversity and ask them for evidence of their commitment.

A third area of concern highlighted in this year's report is recruitment. Encouragingly, 100% those benchmarked this year communicate their commitment to race equality to prospective employers and 98% extend this message to employment agencies and recruiters.

However, for a number of years Race for Opportunity has been concerned about how effective the recruitment industry is at reaching BAME groups and this will be a campaign focus for the rest of the year.

I would like to urge employers to use a variety of recruitment sources and methods to attract ethnic minority applicants. Only 79% of employers surveyed this year did this, down from 84% in 2008.

BT has a proven track record in attracting and recruiting BAME candidates at all levels. In collaboration and partnership with Fair Cities in Bradford, BT has been working to improve the perception of its Openreach apprenticeship scheme and increase the number of BAME apprentices. Activity has included open days, information on the recruitment process and advice on how to apply.

Crucially, whilst general recruitment has been curbed this past year due to the economic climate, BT has continued this Openreach programme and 57% of those joining in September were from a BAME background.

Many of the initiatives applauded in our report are in their infancy, but they are encouraging first steps towards more equal and diverse workplaces. Over the coming year, I would like to see schemes like these rolled out more widely and an increase in the sharing of best practice between employers.   

More action is needed to bring diversity policies to life and translate them into real results for ethnic minority employees. The good intentions are there, but we are yet to see an impact on the hard figures.

Sandra Kerr, national campaign director at Race for Opportunity