“I’m a BAME individual moving into HR – its lack of racial diversity is stark”

Juli Stevens describes always being told ‘not enough experience’ when going for promotions throughout her career – both outside and within the people profession

What will I remember about 2020 as I embark on my journey to become an HR professional? Covid of course. But also, as another Black History Month ends, I find myself reflecting on my work experience. I am glad to say my experience as an employee has generally been positive, but with one overriding negative element: lack of career development.     

I entered the workplace at the start of the Thatcher administration as a junior office worker in the civil service. Great career prospects, you’d think. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Even after seven years’ service and making it clear I wanted to progress, I heard those words ‘not enough experience’ repeated time and time again. 

So, although feeling out of my comfort zone, I leapt into the unknown and forged ahead to change my employer. With my second ever interview, the interviewer informed me I was overqualified to be a copy typist, and said I would be better suited to a personal assistant role instead. I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. It is obvious to me now that I acquire skills through practical experience, often by assisting other team members or when provided with opportunities to manage projects. ‘Always helpful to others’, ‘good role model’, ‘proactive leadership skills’... all reminiscent of the ‘perfect’ school report, and qualities I now realise I possess – and all qualities most employers surely desire. 

Since the Thatcher era, I have held various office roles, some involving HR activities. After undertaking such activities for six months in 2019, along with my official duties, an official HR role became available at my organisation. I made it clear I was interested but the response was again – you guessed it – ‘not enough experience’. So I took another leap and left to study for my CIPD Level 5 qualification in HRM. While studying, it occurred to me that I have never worked in an organisation where a BAME HR person had been present – not an administrator, adviser, manager or beyond. As I began to look for employment, I initially did not see this lack of diversity as an obstacle. But as the rejections started mounting up, I began to question whether I had done the right thing of cementing my experience by acquiring an HR qualification.

So what is the excuse for a lack of ethnic diversity in the HR profession in the 21st century? Since most of my roles have been in London, one of the most diverse cities on the planet, I simply cannot find the cause for this predicament. It feels like the ethnic minority professional may well be constantly fighting against a tsunami of obstacles to establish a career in HR. 

To tackle this, the profession must encourage companies to consider hiring qualified BAME individuals and we must champion those, at any level, who have successfully entered. On a practical level, purposeful interaction between ethnic minority HR professionals and those in education is needed, so insight into the positives and negatives of HR can be shared with those thinking about becoming a people practitioner. Also helpful will be provision of strategic one-to-one mentoring programmes for those trying to enter the profession from ethnic backgrounds. 

Despite the added challenge of the Covid pandemic, I am still hopeful I will be able to practice my profession. But through my studies and becoming more engaged with what is happening in HR, I realise I need to voice my concerns; otherwise, how will we ever draw attention to this racial disparity and create a sufficiently balanced and diverse group of HR professionals? Diversity can be beneficial to everyone – but only if organisations embrace it.

Juli Stevens has just completed her Level 5 CIPD in HRM and is now seeking her first official role in HR