Race Matters Now

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Business leaders must act urgently to confront a “paralysis of fear”

We have witnessed a global pandemic with Covid 19 but also the global outcry of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Both are undeniable in terms of their visible and covert impacts on the lives of BAME (Black Asian, Minority Ethnic) communities today.

Many organisations are now stepping forward to support the undercurrent of the race equity movement. After all, could there be a greater and more emotive call to action for Corporate Social Responsibility? The triple hit of COVID 19, racial tensions and the likely redundancies in roles and industries that tend to be populated by BAME communities, creates a real risk in reinforcing historical and societal racial divides.

Black Lives really Matter

The business case for race diversity and inclusion is well documented and the innovation and revenue benefits are well evidenced, yet we have not seen a visible racial diversification in the workplace and particularly at senior levels. Establishing how to face into the conversation, act upon Black Lives Matter and on racial equity in the workplace is understandably challenging for senior leaders but must be done in a meaningful way that demonstrates a moral commitment to doing the right thing.

BAME communities have been disproportionally impacted by COVID-19 whether due to socio-economic factors or simply carrying out high-risk roles in the NHS. We are collectively indebted to this community. What’s critical now is that our privilege and our focus on the bottom-line impacts of COVID do not encourage us to see Race Equity in the workplace simply as an addition to the already-creaking back of business priorities. Instead it must be integral to the solutions we now find. If CEO’s do not demonstrate agency on this issue, it is likely that HR departments (and Employee Race Networks, where they exist) will fail to drive meaningful change and tangible outcomes. Disillusionment and disengagement of existing BAME employees and their allies is likely to increase where they see no action from their Executive teams.

Confront the “paralysis of fear”

Having spent over 20 years in HR as a BAME woman, what has been evident is that gender diversity and inclusion across industries has been a CEO and boardroom priority to varying degrees of success. However, race doesn’t seem to be as central to Executive leadership DNA in the same way. I believe organisations fundamentally fail to act due to a paralysis of fear on the topic of race. This fear is associated with ‘getting it wrong’. The first step is acknowledging this as an Executive team and accepting that there are no proven blueprints for Race Equity. There are, however, learnings from those businesses who have stepped forward and lessons learned from other D&I strategies and approaches. While the change requires dedication to learning and will take years to embed, it can be achieved through appropriate and bespoke culture change plans.

George Floyd’s death was shocking on a number of fronts. But what was disturbing beyond the officer who ignored his cries for help, were the officers who were bystanders to the crime and their inaction. It is time for us all, including organisations, to be more than passive onlookers to racial disparity and for all of us to become activists in establishing a fairer and more equal society for all.

What Is To Be Done?

The business ask is relatively straightforward: we need leaders to authentically care and use their privilege to create space and listen to the stories and experiences of others so that race is better understood. Having personally led and sponsored the BAME network and strategy at Telefonica O2 UK for two years and having consulted with companies across industries in driving Race Equity Culture Change, here are some of the steps I encourage businesses to take:

  • A focused drive to collect race and ethnicity data to establish the company’s starting point is a must. This requires organisations to build trust with their employees as to the intention and use of this data. Carrying out and publishing a BAME pay review before any government mandate is a positive and bold step. Then build a plan to improve on these statistics.
  • A Race D&I audit of core people processes and policies is a good starting point alongside the data drive to build a clear race equity strategy and change plan.
  • Set up a BAME network where employees can share thoughts and feel connected to like-minded people. Creating space where BAME networks can have meaningful dialogues and can share stories safely is a great way to demonstrate commitment to listening and learning. A dedicated Race Sponsor at an Executive level enables the network to overcome any barriers they may experience in driving cultural change.
  • Immersive leadership experiences on race are key for all leaders starting with the Executive team. Invite in a BAME expert to facilitate a session with the Executive and senior leadership teams which focuses on: an introduction to appropriate language and terminology when discussing race; understanding the BLM movement; understanding broader ethnic minority issues in the UK and particularly in the workplace.
  • It is vital that these leaders come together with an experienced BAME facilitator who is able to assess what is relevant for the organisation’s Race change plan. Placing too much of the ‘Race learning’ burden on most senior BAME employees can feel highly pressurised and potentially career limiting. As most HR functions are likely to be a predominately white female demographic in most organisations, is it fair to assume they are best placed to drive Race Equity?
  • Improve diversity in leadership at all levels including talent pools. This will demonstrate that the company is truly committed (beyond words) to fair and equal opportunities for all. Without BAME role models at senior levels, BAME employees will not feel they are represented or can achieve career progression in the business.
  • Listen, acknowledge and accept the stories you hear without reacting, justifying or – worse still – positioning good news stories and activities already undertaken. Ultimately this may be seen as a deflection from what the reality is for BAME individuals and create a greater sense of divide.
  • If carrying out redundancy initiatives, ensure that a race diversity lens is placed on those at risk and selected for redundancy. It is likely that existing people processes have already allowed for management bias to negatively affect BAME employees (performance management, disciplinary processes, lack of visibility of junior employees etc) so be mindful of who is selected to leave your business.

Mandeep Heer is the Founder of Curated Cultures Consultancy and the former People Strategy & Transformation Director of Telefonica 02, where she was recognized as number 25 in the Top 100 Empower BAME Leaders. Mandeep is part of the extended Jericho network of friends and advisors.


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