Half of BAME staff feel obliged to hide their personalities, survey finds

Experts call on businesses to overcome ‘systemic challenges’ that lead to ethnic minority workers being expected to ‘act white’

Nearly half of ethnic minority staff in the UK feel they need to hide their true personalities at work, according to a survey. 

The study, carried out by consultancy Utopia before coronavirus and which surveyed 2,000 UK workers, found BAME individuals felt pressure to aspire to a certain expression of professionalism that favoured their white counterparts. As a result, 49 per cent said they felt they had to mask part of their identity to fit in at the office, compared to 43 per cent of white workers who said this. 

This disconnect was even greater among women, with 59 per cent of BAME women saying they felt they had to hide their true personalities at work.

Tolu Farinto, changemaker at Utopia, said BAME workers – particularly those in the black community – faced pressure to form faux identities because businesses perpetuated cultures that expected workers to “act white”. Because of these “white cultures”, black employees were not able to progress as readily as their white colleagues, Farinto said.

The research also found more than half of BAME workers (52 per cent) were afraid to show vulnerability at work for fear of being judged, compared to 39 per cent of white workers. Two in five (44 per cent) BAME workers said they were afraid to ask for emotional support at work when they needed it, compared to 34 per cent of white workers.

Farinto said the more human dimension that had been brought to the world of work as a result of the Covid-19 crisis would be especially important to maintain to better support BAME workers. 

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“To overcome these systemic challenges [around racial inequality], businesses must create inclusive cultures that demonstrate ethnicity is not a barrier to success in the workplace. This is integral now more than ever, as employers start to consider the move back to the physical office,” Farinto said.

Sandra Kerr, race equality director at Business in the Community, said the study showed the need for all managers and employers to be curious about people’s backgrounds and lived experiences. “People from BAME communities mask when they feel unsafe to bring their full selves to work or [when] they are shown that they will be punished if they are their authentic selves,” she said.

Kerr explained minorities often felt a sense of being hypervisible and subject to scrutiny, particularly if they are the only person with a particular background in the room. 

“This can manifest in overt ways with stereotypical comments around appearance, but it can also show up in covert ways, with BAME employees being segregated into roles that are less front-facing,” Kerr said. “This has a direct impact on BAME employees’ progression. Managers need to be prepared to really listen. Without this, many employees will feel voiceless and that there is no room for them at that organisation.”

The Utopia research found two in five (41 per cent) BAME workers felt their organisation did not offer an inclusive culture, and the same number (41 per cent) said they felt less likely to progress professionally because of their ethnicity. This was compared to only 9 per cent of white workers who felt they faced barriers because of their ethnicity. 

The research came as a recent poll by YouGov of 1,200 BAME Britons found the majority (84 per cent) believed racism existed in the UK. It found 38 per cent of BAME people had experienced racism in the workplace, and 44 per cent had experienced an impact on their career. 

The research also found just over half (56 per cent) of BAME individuals in employment considered their workplaces diverse environments, but a third (34 per cent) did not. Additionally, 46 per cent said they were satisfied with workplace policies on diversity and inclusion, but a quarter (37 per cent) were displeased with these. 

Respondents also shared experiences of racism in their wider lives. Three-quarters (74 per cent) had been asked ‘where they were really from’ and more than half (52 per cent) said they had been on the receiving end of assumptions based on race. Almost a third (29 per cent) said they had been stopped or questioned on the street by the authorities, with 9 per cent reporting that this had happened multiple times.