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What employers can do for BAME employees as we head back to the office

The murder of George Floyd, alongside the shocking rate of coronavirus deaths within the ethnic minority population, has highlighted a lot of ugly truths about divides - namely race, privilege, equity and equality. For some, it’s reinforced ingrained feelings; for others, it’s been eye-opening.

This spotlight has also made clear that employers - and employees - have a duty to acknowledge how their behaviours and policies impact their ethnic minority staff. They also have a duty to fix it.

As many of us head back to the office, we need to have tough conversations and face the reality of inequality. As a black man, I want to ask the question: how do we really make this moment matter?

The first step is recognition

Recognise how current events have impacted ethnic minority employees. How they feel marginalised for just existing. How even acronyms like BAME or BME can marginalise employees even further.

I know some people feel uncomfortable talking about ethnicity because they don’t want to cause offence. But it really is time for employers to understand the nuances in the way people bundled into the BAME bucket experience the world on an individual level.

Personally, I’ve never referred to my ethnicity using BAME (or BME), and I don’t like it when the acronym is used to describe me. I have a specific ethnic identity I’m proud of - my heritage is Nigerian.

The images of ethnic minority people being abused, riots, killings in the middle of broad daylight - it’s traumatising. Recognise that. Recognise the fact that some employees won’t want to talk about it; saying ‘I can’t believe all this inequality and injustice - how does it make you feel?’ to a person of colour, at this time, could do more harm than good.

To put the pressure of solving global race division on someone, based on the colour of their skin, is to ask them to represent and live that trauma and pain - for you. Understandably, they might not want to.

Allyship - being a supportive figure to someone who’s marginalised in some way - is a wonderful and welcome thing, but it has boundaries too. It’s not up to ethnic minority employees to educate everyone on their challenges - it’s something the workforce needs to learn itself, and then look at how it can drive change.

Make the space to educate yourself

For a working class, white professional who’s had to support their family during the pandemic, racism may not be a priority. It hasn’t been factored into their lived experience. So for an organisation to properly educate employees and enact real change, it has to create time and space for the education process.

Use this insight to clearly lay out what everyday racism looks like - the things that are embedded in the way we think, work and interact. Walk your people through internalised, interpersonal, institutional and structural racism so they can kick-start change in an informed way.

Show them the Harvard IAT test so they can see exactly how personal biases play into decision-making. How it’s rife across every aspect of life, even down to people on a packed train moving their bags further away from me, simply down to how I look - they’ve seen how black males are portrayed in the media and it anchors their biases.

Explain how microaggressions can cause huge damage to employees’ mental health - not all of the UK’s black workers have an encyclopedic knowledge of ‘urban’ trends, nor are they all from Jamaica because they ate a banana at their desk once. Lay out how these microaggressions pile up. How they’re inescapable.

There’s so much in terms of materials employers can use to get everyone up to speed. For example, my colleague’s child, who’s at secondary school, was sent home with a pack explaining the systemic causes of why George Floyd was murdered, what they can do to learn more, and some discussion topics to explore. Every child at the school received that.

Nobody’s expected to nail it the first time - just the fact that the problems are being acknowledged and addressed will help create safe, inclusive cultures where all employees feel valued.

Ensure you have buy-in

It’s crucial not to set out plans without consulting your ethnic minority employees and colleagues first - otherwise it can seem like a tokenistic directive from above, even if it's well-meaning. If these voices aren’t comfortable, or feel they don’t have the authority to work on it, that’s fine. Bring in experts who can give you that viewpoint.

I’m sure you’ve heard the rumour about Beyoncé last year - she apparently walked out of a pitch for a co-branded fashion collection, with the words: “Nobody in this room reflects my background, my skin colour, and where I’m from, and what I want to do,” as she left.

A lot of people aren’t outwardly racist, but the biases they hold, the way ethnic minority people have been portrayed to them, their lived experience - this all informs their viewpoints. If education is used to help them understand this, they can listen. Then they can react. They’ll know where things need improving.

And just as importantly, they’ll know how.

Tolu Farinto is change-maker at culture change business Utopia

Further reading:

Now is the opportunity for a cultural clean slate, says former NBA star John Amaechi

Black Lives Matter: now it's time to act

Why the far right 'protests' this weekend were far from our finest hour

It’s time to talk about the ethnicity pay gap