Leadership Forum insights: Tackling workplace racial inequality

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) has become an important topic of discussion across many industries and is also increasingly viewed as a key strategic tool to enhance commercial performance. While the D&I discussion concerns many groups, race and ethnicity in the workplace have gained significant attention, with movements like Black Lives Matter shining a light on the explicit and implicit racism that ethnic minorities continue to face. Against this backdrop, it is essential that business leaders treat this as an issue which extends to the business sector and the world of work. 

But effectively tackling this issue will require that we find ways to talk about race and the experiences of ethnic minorities fruitfully and sensitively. To discuss this important topic further, Michael Page recently hosted thought leadership virtual forum, Let’s Talk About Race, with a panel of expert speakers: 

  • Bernadette Ude-Wetherell, Head of People and Culture, Distrelec Group
  • Holly Straker, Inclusion & Engagement Lead, Sky Betting & Gaming
  • Qudsia Karim, HR Lead, Program Matrix, Compass Group
  • Sarah Emanuel, Business Manager, PageGroup
  • Nathan Ross, Business Manager and UK D&I Steering Committee member, PageGroup

Do I belong, or not?

The panel began by identifying a simple question that we all ask ourselves, both personally and professionally: do I feel that I belong? This is an important starting point, because for many ethnic minorities in many different industries, the answer is often no. Racism today is far less likely than in the past to manifest as overt verbal or physical expressions of bigotry - but it frequently appears in subtle interactions, which can prove equally or even more psychologically damaging. So, how do we address and begin to fix such a widespread societal issue when it arises in the workplace?  
The speakers agreed that the first step is to find effective ways to talk about race and racism in the workplace. As Reni Eddo-Lodge’s 2017 bestseller ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ established, the breakdown of communication around issues of race is often central to their perpetuation. To get a sense of whether the topic was on the radar for the event’s attendees, we conducted a poll asking how whether they had recently talked about race. Encouragingly the poll found that a majority of participants had done, illustrating that many business leaders are ready to take action. 

Driving change

As racism and adjacent topics like white privilege become increasingly common themes in both day-to-day discussions and the media, it is more and more important to establish strategies to promote equality, diversity, and inclusion. In the context of the workplace, the disproportionately low representation of ethnic minorities in leadership is indicative of the need to begin by identifying areas in which companies are currently failing. Which groups are not being represented, at what levels, and why? The speakers noted that once these questions are answered, it will be easier for change agents to have a deeper and more fundamental impact. 
Other ways to drive change at an organisational level include developing our capacity to feel comfortable having conversations about race, something which will improve as it becomes an increasingly common subject of discussion. During the event we conducted a poll asking the attendees: ‘As an HR leader, do you feel comfortable in articulating your thoughts around race in your organisation?’ While 76% answered ‘yes’, a full 24% answered in the negative, illustrating that a sizable portion of leaders struggle with the topic. 

Of course, it is also essential to consider who is having these discussions, and whose voices are being heard therein. A prominent theme at the event was the importance of taking these conversations out of the realm of theory and into the communities to whom they are most relevant, creating spaces in which ethnic minorities can share their experiences. By doing this, we can truly improve inclusion and access to opportunities in the workplace by tackling the roots of more covert racist attitudes. But while it is important to have these conversations and ensure that different groups feel comfortable engaging with one another on these topics, it is still essential to remember the role of the words we choose to do so and the responses they may trigger in others. 

What positive steps can we take?

The speakers noted the importance of experimentation and boldness as we approach these challenges. All too often, individuals within organisations, whether they are seeking to improve their own understanding of racism and its consequences, or to share their own experiences, doubt themselves and hold themselves back. This tendency is understandable, but it must be overcome – the development both of organisational and individual best practices which can be emulated is, after all, essential to continued improvement. It is therefore also necessary for individuals to band together, engaging their own companies from the ground up to the highest possible levels, creating the necessary momentum for this improvement. 

The speakers also commented that, when doing this, it is important to consider our communication style carefully, using simple language to keep the conversation accessible and avoid intimidating those who may not be familiar with the finer points of the topic. When attempting to drive internal change, it is also worth thinking about ways to capitalise on a company’s commitment to its own brand and story: how can addressing become a positive part of this? 

Diversity and inclusion in recruitment

Creating a more diverse and inclusive environment in an established organisation is a complex task, one which must begin with the recruitment process itself. As a comprehensive report by PageGroup has recently shown, gender bias is prevalent in the wordings of job advertisements across industries. Given this, it is worth considering how inclusive your language is as a whole and use more progressive and collaborative terms to be fully inclusive of all ethnicities as well other diversity strands. 

It is also important for hiring managers to be sensitive and remain attentive to their own potential unconscious biases, whilst being honest and realistic about the pools of diversity that can be expected given wider demographics. Of course, a recruiter cannot produce a candidate shortlist based solely on a characteristic like ethnicity, but it is always possible to approach hiring in an inclusive way which prioritises diverse skillsets and perspectives. 

The speakers further noted that hiring managers and recruiters can access larger candidate pools by leveraging networking groups and referrals. Organisations need to expand their thinking, focusing not only on candidates who would ‘fit’ with existing company cultures, but those who would add to that culture in new ways. 

Ultimately, all of society needs to change and continue to make progress on issues of race and diversity, but it is nonetheless incumbent upon organisations to do the same in the workplace. This means prioritising change in a variety of ways. Staff should seek to influence senior leaders, while those leaders should devote resource to diversity and inclusion programs and be willing to devolve responsibility. There are steps that can be taken at all levels of an organisation, and those that start earlier, and with guidance from experts, will place themselves at a considerable strategic advantage. 

At Michael Page Human Resources, we regularly discuss these issues with our clients and candidates, helping companies create inclusive environments and top talent to find them. If you are seeking high quality candidates or looking for your next career opportunity in HR, you can arrange an introductory conversation with one of our expert consultants by clicking here. Or, browse our articles on related issues here.