How to ensure your workplace is anti-racist

HR must play a key role in ensuring change happens following this year’s Black Lives Matter protests, say Claudine Charles and Geoffrey Williams

The noise around the atrocious events in the US this spring may have died down. Following a period of forceful social engagement that has seen intense daily legal actions to denounce police brutality, monuments glorifying slave owners toppled and white actors playing black characters in cartoons stepping down, now comes a time when the issue is no longer as visible on social media. 

So how much of a positive and long-lasting impact did the past three months really have on the experience of black people in general, but specifically in the workplace? These seemingly remedial actions were very noticeable. But they sometimes appeared to divide the general public, even antagonising some, rather than provide practical long-term solutions for all.

The events in the US show many people want real, practical and positive change. The importance of being ‘anti-racist’ has been regularly cited. Anti-racism by various definitions includes words such as ‘practical’, ‘confronting’, ‘promoting’ and ‘advocating’. All these words relate to a more proactive approach that encourages us to move beyond policy, processes and data. 

It’s now time to have frank and difficult conversations to bring about change. We need to confront overt bias, inappropriate banter and name-calling, injustice and unconscious bias. We need to educate the majority about the minority, including on the history of the black experience, reflecting on our own possible blindness to inequality and its impact. 

However, anti-racism should not become just a new buzzword. Regardless of an individual’s gender, race, sexuality, age or socioeconomic background, there should not be any barriers to their success or career progression. And regardless of the terms we use to describe what we are trying to achieve, HR plays a key role in enabling those changes to happen.

HR has over the years been instrumental in leading companies to make necessary improvements to the working experiences of black and minority ethnic people through the implementation of effective policies, procedures, data gathering and analysis. But more importantly, HR professionals are the gatekeepers for the change we want to see in business. HR can use its platform and communicate messages to influence change across organisations, specifically to its leadership teams. HR can provide the necessary coaching and support for managers on how to respond, communicate and role model the right behaviours to increase racial equality. HR can also respond – or continue to respond – impartially to all accusations of racism to stamp it out and ensure such incidents are not brushed under the carpet. 

Here are some practical steps HR and organisations should be taking (if they’re not already) to support racial equality at work:

Set an objective. Every organisation that plans to actively tackle racism needs an objective to sustain it, so it’s a beneficial, business solution rather than a knee-jerk reaction to the current climate. Employers could consider: does attracting the brightest and best employees who have an anti-racist mindset enable your business to have a positive impact on society and your clients?

Influence your board. HR and leadership teams need to place racial equality on the agenda in board and leadership meetings. Evidence suggests LGBT+ rights were fought for in the corporate environment, so let’s follow this positive trend. There needs to be a clear understanding of the gaps and opportunities and active monitoring and reporting to achieve measurable change.

Make big external statements. Organisations’ approaches to working with black suppliers should be reviewed. Engage in dialogue with charities and provide them with long-term support, not one-off engagements. Also consider how you position your branding and marketing where appropriate to support black and ethnic minorities in your workforce and beyond. 

Educate internally. Educate internally across the business on what it means to be an anti-racist as well as a supporter of racial equality, and share the company’s position on this. Educate employees that racism does not contribute positively to a high-performing business. These conversations should also include the actual consequences for staff who discriminate against staff based on their ethnicity.  

Change visually as an organisation. Set realistic and practical targets for recruiting specifically black people into leadership positions. Businesses should identify at what point they are losing most of their black talent, why this happens and what can be done to retain these employees. But regardless of an employee’s demographic, leadership and HR teams should actively work towards removing any barriers to career progression to ensure they have the best talent in the right positions.  

Recruit the right people. Ensure the company’s anti-racism stance appears in any recruitment blurb for suppliers. As well as supplier diversity, ensure all organisational partners align to core values concerning anti-racism. 

Influence and support the right management behaviours. Educate managers on the company’s stance on anti-racism. Encourage them to practice and voice their personal positive stance on anti-racism and provide coaching on how to both informally challenge and acknowledge reports of racist incidents.  

Educate on language and communication. Educate employees across the organisation on the right language to use, as well as encouraging conversations about race to support everyone to remove their blind spots. Continue to provide training on unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion, and update materials to include the company’s anti-racism and race equality statement and practical approach.    

Read and unlearn historical patterns. Encourage all staff to unlearn the unhelpful narratives they have been taught as they’ve grown up, as well as learn about the black experience in the UK.

Remind employees of their responsibilities in their personal lives. Our personal and work lives are now closely intertwined. As a result, companies should inform their employees what constitutes unacceptable behaviour in public spaces, where the company name might be associated with this. Staff should be informed that racism will not be tolerated either inside or outside of work and the repercussions of any infractions clearly shared. They should be informed that social media and all other forums of communication are an extension of work in this regard.

Claudine Charles is founder and director of Blended Learning Studio, and Geoffrey Williams is founding director of GOW