Language has always helped humans to be social beings and make sense of the world. Whether it’s shapes, animals or colours, we are taught to categorise and label to understand the world around us.
Throughout our lives, we continue this categorisation, but also refine these skills to allow for more complex groupings in order to define, predict and make better decisions.
Though these groupings may be helpful to our overall understanding, they can also contribute to tensions and inequality between different members of society. Categorising people into groups such as BAME, LGBT+, and disabled can often mean large swathes of very different people ending up in the same category.
BAME, for example, is a UK-derived term which covers a wide variety of ethnicities and lumps them into one group, suggesting each individual within that category will experience the world in the same way, despite their differences.
We know that individuals from ethnic minority backgrounds face discrimination in the workplace, yet to what extent and how varies between ethnic groups. Using the phrase within the context of the workplace can reduce the varieties of experience.
According to the McGregor-Smith Review in 2012, the employment rate for black and minority ethnic (BME) groups was only 62.8% compared with an employment rate for white workers of 75.6%. Yet when broken down, the employment rate for those from a Pakistani or Bangladeshi background was just 54.9%.
The data tells one story, but only when our groupings are broken down do we get the full story and are able understand the complexities of diversity and inclusion.
It’s a similar tale with any minority group. For example, within the LGBT+ community, the experience of a gay man and the prejudices and assumptions he faces will differ greatly to those of a lesbian woman.
And it’s not just sexuality which is included within this term, given different gender expressions such as trans or non-binary are also homogenised in this group, seemingly conflating sexual orientation with gender – two very different attributes.
Equality Act 2010
HR often uses these terms within the workplace with good intentions. The Equality Act 2010 outlaws discrimination on the basis of attributes such as age, gender, race, disability and sexual orientation, which are classed as protected characteristics. And in the workplace the responsibility for policing this falls to HR.
This means it can legally ask employees questions about these characteristics and how they define themselves in order to create a workplace culture that caters to everyone. But how to do this respectfully and appropriately so individuality is still heard and appreciated is a lot more challenging.
There is a dichotomy at play between wanting to gather data for HR to know more about its workforce and the idea that these groups, which often contain minorities of some sort, are being lumped together and their lived experience muted.
By HR using these terms in order to be inclusive and acknowledge different points of view, it could instead be alienating voices and minimising a person’s culture, history or identity.
As often is the case, the need for context and nuance when it comes to how people choose to identify is paramount, and the term one person is comfortable with may be disliked by the next.
So, is it time to go back to the drawing board when it comes to how we label our people?
Benefits of groupings
Yinka Opaneye, HR director at GameAnalytics, says that umbrella terms are a good starting point and foundation for most organisations as they can often help to demonstrate companies have started to recognise the importance of diversity.
They can also be helpful in creating communities for under-represented voices to be seen and heard. Like many HR professionals, he understands the need for thorough, robust data detailing an organisation’s employees and the benefits this can bring to a workplace, from developing strategy to spotting inequalities.
He says: “If companies recognise that they have these people within an organisation, it’s a stepping-stone for other areas. However, there’s a lot to be picked apart and each category has difficulties within it.”
Jenny Holmes, HR research consultant at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) agrees, arguing these terms can also prove useful when it comes to data gathering as it allows HR to benchmark effectively.
She says: “There is something useful in using the terms everyone else uses as HR can benchmark against locality, region, industry. This means these categories can then be compared with much broader groupings and terms can be tracked to follow trends.”
These familiar terms can show whether an organisation is failing to hire, promote or fairly pay minorities, preventing discrimination, unconscious or otherwise, within the workplace.
Jon Palmer, senior adviser at Acas, says grouping has historically been proven to help solve workplace inequalities such as the gender pay gap by holding companies to account and publicising their current power imbalances.
He says: “Grouping by sex sends out a powerful message and it can be a practical and sensible tool to promote equality – but only when it’s used correctly. Without gender pay gap reporting, the notion of closing the gap would be questionable.
"But at the same time, you’ve got people who feel they’re not part of that group and therefore a good employer is aware that gender reporting is not only a legal requirement, but also aware of who makes up their workforce.”
Palmer therefore argues that it’s more valuable to analyse when HR chooses to use these labels, rather than the merits and limitations of any particular group.
He adds: “You have to use it in the right context and it’s important to be switched on to the impact of using these groups. A simple way for employers to work out groupings is to make sure they’ve set up channels for their staff to tell them how they want to be identified.”
Reaching its limits
Though groupings may have a positive part to play in promoting equality, HR must be aware of the limitations of each umbrella term. By gathering the data, we are assuming that HR is using it to push forward diversity and inclusion strategies, but it’s vital to be aware of the intersectionalities at play and stereotypes we can be guilty of falling into.
Opaneye highlights that each category, be it BAME, LGBT+, disabled, is to some degree reductionist. He says: “The idea that because you have individuals that are classed as minorities, they have the same types of experiences is ludicrous.
"Black Lives Matter focused on black individuals, but each black person’s engagement with that movement was very different. And then it’s different for someone who has grown up in a western world vs a migrant.”
This nuance and uniqueness is even more pressing when it comes to the intersectionality of sexuality Opaneye argues. “It’s even more diverse because different people within that bracket have different experiences.
"There’s less of a focus on lesbians for example as we live in a patriarchal society which focuses on the needs and experiences of men, so it’s seen through the male lens. Anything that happens to men is deemed more valuable – and that includes gay men.”
Lanre Sulola, consultant and diversity coach at Inner Ambitions, agrees, arguing the phrase BAME in particular is unhelpful when it comes to identifying and diversifying the workplace.
He says: “BAME puts diverse groups into one bucket and does not allow people to see, analyse or evaluate the uniqueness of each of these groups. It also can be used to cloud the real situations or progress of particular groups put within these buckets.”
Palmer adds: “Most of the time, HR can pick this [the limits of a phrase] up by listening to its staff, but it will depend on the size of the organisation.
"When you’re in somewhere [as large as] the Civil Service, you have all connotations and diversities. But in a small employer, HR is realistically not going to be constantly re-evaluating equality. So instead, they should listen to people they’ve hired and focus on that and always question whether they are hiring diversely.”
The historical connotations of each term we use must also be considered when HR looks to categorise its workforce. We often use culturally specific phrases based on historic links, for example many of the terms the UK uses for minorities come from the Commonwealth countries, showing how much of our language is historically driven and nation-specific.
The landscape gets even more complicated when considering the terms used in a global organisation – Hispanic, African American, indigenous – would these all be classed as BAME in the UK?
Are we minimising the voices of significance within our workplaces by slapping the same label on each of them?
Groups are advancing at different rates
HR must also not lose focus on the fact that different groups are advancing at different rates, making the space between each letter of our social terms wider.
Opaneye adds: “A good example of variety within an umbrella term is within the LGBT+ movement. There is now so much visibility around the trans community where it was previously just gay men.”
Being part of the LGBT+ community assumes that individuals all get along and are reaching for the same goals, yet there are plenty of divisive issues within this community.
For example, there’s a wing of radical lesbian feminists who have conflicting views on gender to transgender activists. In July of 2019, a small group of lesbian feminists called ‘Get the L Out’ disrupted the annual pride parade holding signs reading “transactivism erases lesbians”.
This group was strongly rejected by the majority of the LGBT+ community, with LGBT+ charity Stonewall actively speaking out against it. Yet it is indicative of the problems that arise when society tries to lump large swathes of people together.
Kate Williams is head of workplace at Stonewall. When addressing how we label our employees, she urges HR to remember that each LGBT+ person is different.
She says: “Organisations should work to support everyone in LGBT+ communities and listen to the needs of their lesbian, gay, bi and trans employees to make sure that they are addressing all of the problems that they are facing.
“To do this, it can be helpful to create safe spaces for LGBT+ staff to meet, discuss problems and escalate those to senior leaders. Networks are also reassuring for staff, who may be pleased to know that there are others who may share some of the difficulties they are facing.
“Different LGBT+ identities can often face separate challenges, and it may be helpful to create multiple networks for specific identities, such as a bi-network or a trans-network.”
Encouraging employees to be their authentic selves
Encouraging employees to self-declare and use the titles they’re comfortable with is a great way for organisations to gather a more accurate picture of their workforce, but it assumes that all employees work in an open culture which encourages them to be honest about their identity and facilitates this discussion.
“We know there’s always a proportion of people who either don’t opt in or, when they do opt in, choose ‘prefer not to say’. But this actually helps us as there’s also a piece of the system that if people go in and they decide not to give their consent, they can do that. So, in a way, we’re also measuring that,” she adds.
The size of the organisation may restrict or encourage HR to collect certain types of data, too. At the IES, Holmes warns HR to be careful not to unintentionally ‘out’ an employee who may not feel comfortable in sharing that information.
She says: “It may be inappropriate to report in granularity as it could identify a particular person who may want to keep their sexual orientation, for example, undisclosed.”
Language can become even more complex when talking about disability in the workplace, making it hard for HR to know what the most appropriate terminology to use is.
Angela Matthews, head of policy and research at the Business Disability Forum, says HR can come across as clinical when asking individuals to put themselves into categories.
“Writing policies or capturing data can seem impersonal and clinical, but the HR profession has a tough job in the sense of they have to relate to individuals in that organisation while responding to an ever-increasing amount of data requirements.
“In the disability space, some are not born with that identity and it develops over time. This then filters into the narrative you have for yourself.
"We speak to people who go into meetings and disability awareness training where they will hear their condition mentioned by the HR diversity team as a disability that can be supported in the workplace. They come away and think they’d never have guessed their illness was a disability.”
In this respect, HR using these terms can be a good space for employees to feel more supported and represented. Matthews adds: “The workplace is an interesting space where some can learn a new narrative for themselves and be introduced to a different way of viewing their experience.
"Some people find it really helpful and for other people, umbrella terms defined by upbringing, background, experience outside of work are more fitting. Some people don’t like the language of disabled and disability.
For some people who have tried to push themselves through a condition, to still be faced with this term is really unhelpful and gets their back up by contributing to certain stereotypes.”
Matthews describes occasions where organisations have called up the Business Disability Forum because they want to employ more people with autism into technical roles.
Yet this assumes that everyone with autism has the same experience, education and passions and will automatically be great in a technical role. She therefore suggests that rather than ditching the disabled label, HR instead could make small tweaks to its terminology.
She adds: “What we need to do sometimes is to enhance the terminology rather than ditch it. If people are asked whether they are disabled, there’s a low positive rate. But if HR adjusts the question to ‘do you have a health condition?’, the positive response rate increased by 10%.”
Caught between a rock and a hard place: what HR can do
Mark Grimley is group director for people and corporate services at Government of Jersey. In the 1990s, he was sacked from a publishing firm for being gay. It meant he lost some confidence and hid his true identity away from his next employer, but now he wants to move past the labels society ascribes to people and instead focus on the individual.
He says: “HR can invite a two-way discussion by reaching out in a non-technical and personal way. If you’re trying to get a response, you want people to come and talk to you. Ask yourself if using an umbrella terms is the most engaging go-to – sometimes it is and sometimes it’s just being a human being.”
In his previous roles, Grimley has felt more ‘seen’ as an individual by his colleagues for the ability to do his job rather than any label society gives him. He adds: “There’s lots of business cases to say why diversity is important and it’s now a no-brainer.
"I’ve got 8,000 staff here, and that’s 8,000 individuals with different lived experiences. No one person is this protected characteristic, they are a person with lots of lived experiences, so I want to focus on networks of people rather than categories.”
For Joanne Lockwood, an inclusion and belonging specialist and trans woman, it’s simply not practical to move away from the terms we currently use as she describes it as human nature to want to categorise people. Though this may be the case, Lockwood encourages organisations to share what they are doing and the data they are collecting using these terms.
She says: “There’s so much history of that data being used against you that people can be wary and any label becomes problematic when it’s used as a stereotype. When looking at data, it’s down to the motivation and authenticity of the question.
"Why are you asking me that question? Do you want to count and categorise me, or show off to say ‘I’ve got one.’ Or is it for my benefit? By [an organisation] knowing I’m trans and knowing I have needs can mean those needs are met and there’s governance and guidelines.
“HR should always create surveys in partnerships. So, for example, if you’re looking to capture the gender of an organisation, explain that your mission is to achieve X and by capturing this data, we need to know what gender you are.”
Will there ever be a moment where we move away from these terms? Unlikely, according to Opaneye. He says: “Where there is difference, there is preference. Where there’s that preference, there’s a prejudice which leads onto discrimination.”
To tackle this he says: “It’s about acknowledging it happens on an unconscious level and making sure it doesn’t lead to the detriment of certain people.”
As society progresses, so too does our language. Rather than focusing on putting people into boxes, instead HR should recognise the limitations these terms have and express them to the rest of the organisation.
Holmes says: “It’s important to get all employees feeling like they are seen. If you are reporting using those terms, caveat it and say you understand the limitations of using them. Or are choosing to do it this way because of the benefits of being able to benchmark.
“Different parts of the UK and different sectors or organisations will have a different diversity makeup. So, ask your employee network groups what terms are useful for them to use and what they feel comfortable with.”
As marginalised voices get louder and people feel more confident to be their whole selves at work, HR will likely continue to reassess the way it gathers data on individuals within its organisation.
While the terms are helpful in a diversity and inclusion setting, it’s vital that HR looks beyond the label to the individual and the wide range of contrasting, surprising, wonderful elements which go into making a human being. If you want the best out of people, treat them as individuals with respect, it’s as simple as that.
The full piece of the above appears in the January/February 2021 print issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.