How businesses can tackle race inequality in the workplace

Following the launch of Race Equality Week, Anjali Raval and Jane Amphlett explain the steps employers can take to put their D&I commitments into practice

Race Equality Week is a UK-wide initiative aimed at uniting organisations and individuals to take action to address barriers to race equality in the workplace. This comes following the Black Lives Matter protests last year, which refocused attention on race inequality, including in the workplace. These initiatives demonstrate that there is increasing pressure for change.

More than 55 years after the first race relations legislation came into force in the UK, what's clear is that black and minority ethnic staff still face widespread discrimination, inequality and underrepresentation at work, particularly at a senior level. Recent research has revealed that the number of black leaders in chair, CEO and CFO roles within FTSE 100 companies has fallen to zero. Perhaps more worryingly, according to recent government research, a quarter of BAME staff report witnessing or experiencing discrimination, harassment or bullying in the workplace.

Many employers have vowed to do better and more than 1,000 organisations engaged with Race Equality Week – but what can they do to benefit from the wealth of diverse talent on offer? As with other systemic challenges, a multi-pronged approach is required. There are many resources available to employers and a good starting point is Business in the Community's Race at Work Charter. We summarise some of the key steps.

Appoint an executive sponsor for race and other ‘diversity champions’ – staff buy-in is key to implementing any diversity agenda. It is important for organisations to have visible leaders on ethnicity to make the case for action, engage with staff and to set ethnicity targets.

  • Carefully consider whether there are any barriers to diverse recruitment – seek to remove any conscious or unconscious bias from the recruitment process; consider ‘institution blind’ recruitment; apply a risk-based approach to whether screening for criminal records is required (some ethnicities are overrepresented in the criminal system and are more likely to be screened out for unspent convictions); and consider how to broaden the potential recruitment pool, such as where roles are advertised.
  • Capture ethnicity data and publicise progress – to identify any underrepresentation or disadvantage, employers need to capture ethnicity data. They can then identify priorities and set targets. Over time they will be able to measure progress and identify any trends in the data. However, employers need to be mindful of their obligations under the GDPR and will need to identify a lawful basis for processing employees' personal data and ensure they have appropriate safeguards in place for that data.
  • Encourage participation in both internal and external BAME employee networks or employee resource groups – these can help create an inclusive environment and give BAME employees a safe space to share their experiences and express themselves. But it's also very important that there isn't a ‘one size fits all’ approach to race – experience across minorities is not homogenous.
  • Emphasise that the business is listening by giving staff lots of opportunity to give feedback about diversity in the business – for example, through appraisals, surveys and questionnaires.
  • A programme of diversity training – this should be regular and should be active rather than passive where possible. The Employment Appeal Tribunal recently held that ‘stale’ diversity training was insufficient to establish an employer's ‘reasonable steps’ defence to a discrimination claim. Training should not simply be an ‘add on’ but should be part of required job training, and should be promoted by the senior management team.
  • All managers should have a responsibility for supporting workplace equality – performance objectives could include diversity KPIs to encourage cultural change; for example, assessing improved scoring for a team in inclusion surveys. 
  • Take action that supports ethnic minority career progression – have a mentoring programme in place for BAME staff, and consider reverse mentoring and sponsorship.
  • Commit to zero tolerance of harassment and bullying – the aim should be not only to prevent illegal conduct, but also to prevent all forms of disrespectful behaviour and decisions that could contribute to a discriminatory or hostile environment for staff and customers, and to take appropriate action where any complaints are raised. 

While there is still much progress to be made to address race inequality in the workplace, the agenda is gaining traction. Organisations that wish to take meaningful action to tackle some of the barriers currently in place, and make good on their diversity and inclusion commitments, need to take a multifaceted approach. Fundamental to success will be capturing ethnicity data to focus the organisation's priorities and demonstrating commitment from the top. 

Anjali Raval is an associate and Jane Amphlett a partner at Howard Kennedy