Addressing racial diversity in the workplace is not a new concept. However, this year, following the global re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, more conversations are being had about racism and inequality in the business world.
Bridging the ethnicity pay gap, hiring more ethnic minority employees at senior level and introducing initiatives such as blind CVs are all important steps, however if organisations do not work to improve their working culture, these steps will not make a permanent difference.
Improving ethnic minority representation across all levels of business without ensuring these employees are protected and comfortable in their working environment isn’t enough. How are your ethnic minority employees treated by staff across the company? Can they bring their ‘full selves’ to work or are they made to feel uncomfortable?
We caught up with Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) advocates, Rob Neil, Director of Krystal Alliance, Aggie Mutuma, Director of Mahogany Inclusion Partners and Ife Onwuzulike, Diversity & Inclusion Advisor at the CBI, to discuss how organisations can address racial inequality in the workplace by improving their culture.
What is workplace culture?
According to independent charity, Skills for Care, workplace culture refers to the character and personality of your organisation. This includes your organisation’s leadership, its traditions, values, behaviours and the attitudes of its people.
One of the key elements that define this culture is ‘a sense of identity’. Do your employees feel unified, like they belong when they show up to work every day?
For a lot of ethnic minority employees, the answer is no. It can be difficult navigating the business world, constantly conscious about race and racism, while their white counterparts are none the wiser.
Without communication and an environment that encourages sharing and listening to one another, it is difficult to begin open and transparent conversations when issues such as racism arise.
Why open and consistent communication is key
1. Acknowledge the problem
Rob Neil has been a civil servant for nearly 40 years and in that time, he has founded The Ministry of Justice’s BAME Network and co-created the Civil Service Race Forum, both formed to advance diversity, inclusion and equality for civil service ethnic minority employees.
He states that in order to effectively address this issue and improve workplace culture, organisations must firstly openly acknowledge and accept that institutional racism is real.
“We've got far too many leaders who are still trapped in a culture of denial and are unable to accept that systemic racism is prevalent across all our sectors,” he says. “Any solution needs to develop an anti-racist strategy and that strategy needs to co-create the new normal with Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people at the table where decisions are made.”
Enabling an open space for BAME professionals to have conversations about race in the workplace facilitates company-wide learning.
That being said however, it shouldn’t exclusively fall to BAME employees to educate their white colleagues.
2. Initiate difficult conversations
When the tragic death of George Floyd in the US hit the Black British public, many were looking to their senior leaders to speak up and offer support during a distressing period. The workplace reflects society after all, according to Aggie Mutuma.
The initial acknowledgment is a good start, but how is your organisation continuing that conversation and reacting to matters that affect ethnic minorities, particularly the Black community?
Mutuma partners with organisations on their journey towards inclusive workplace cultures. According to her company, Mahogany Inclusion Partners, 93% of UK organisations struggle to have conversations about sensitive issues.
“Read the room, read society,” Mutuma adds. “Yes, it’s not an easy conversation for white people, I get that, but it’s not an easy conversation for Black people either, especially in the workplace.
“In times of open conversation, open learning, open outrage, activities and the demonstrations around race and society, organisations’ leadership teams and their silence speak very loudly to your Black employees and your other employees who are BAME, but also all your employees who are underrepresented, they’re also watching.”
If organisations are still struggling to communicate internally, then Mutuma suggests bringing in a third party to allow employees to feedback to senior management from a place of psychological safety.
What does D&I action look like?
Once these conversations begin, action plans must follow and for Ife Onwuzulike, that action looks like sponsorship.
“One of the major issues why most Black people do not stay in an organisation is because there's no way to progress,” she says. “People think sponsorship is about mentoring, but it is about the power that comes with that. It comes with the prominence of a senior leader to say that I am investing my time to enable growth and to enable this person to be able to get to this talk, I am speaking about them in meetings that they are in, I am championing them, I am an advocate for them, but I am also having honest and challenging conversations with them about how they can navigate.”
Onwuzulike has worked in D&I for nearly five years and her own feelings of uncertainty and having to present herself in a certain way in the workplace triggered this shift from HR roles to championing diverse professionals.
She founded the CBI’s BAME Network and has since led sessions on race and inclusion with senior leaders, encouraged a review of the company’s Pay and Progression Policy and collated a list of resources, including charities, books, articles and podcasts, on how colleagues can effectively support Black staff and educate themselves in the wake of Floyd’s death.
Understanding that transformation is a journey
There is no one single step that can be taken to successfully address racial inequality in the workplace, nor will it change overnight. Each D&I advocate we spoke to acknowledged that the solution is multifaceted. Overall, the same approaches will manifest differently across various organisations and industries.
For Mutuma, delivering unconscious bias training is a valid method that has led to 100% of her participants understanding the term, around 96% being motivated to do their part in the workplace and 90% understanding the next steps to tackle unconscious bias.
Neil has found success in advocating for BAME networks and ensuring that they are truly invested in and ran to deliver a better organisation and cultivate retention. Onwuzulike has done the same, while also stressing the importance of engaging the necessary stakeholders and using data to back up the personal experiences of ethnic minority employees.
Normalising conversations about race and racism at work is an essential part of the journey to improving workplace culture overall.