‘Closed definition’ of leadership means employers still overlook BAME talent

Report shows ethnic minority representation in FTSE 100 companies has fallen over the last year

Too many companies have a defined view of what a CEO or board member should look like, which is stifling diversity in leadership teams, an expert has said, after the publication of a new report which found BAME representation at the highest levels of business was going backwards.

Tinu Cornish, chartered organisational psychologist and director at Sea-Change Consultancy, said many employers and headhunters had an idea of what a senior hire "should be", which resulted in black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) candidates being overlooked. 

"Unless a BAME candidate can tick all those boxes, and in particular [demonstrate] previous FTSE 100 experience, they are never even considered – let alone make the shortlist," Cornish told People Management.

She said companies must challenge their definition of what the "best" candidate looks like, and instead focus on evidence of key executive and leadership skills gained in "more diverse settings". 

Cornish’s comments came in response to the revelation yesterday that the UK’s largest businesses were failing to make progress on increasing ethnic diversity in their leadership teams, with the total number of BAME leaders dropping over the past year.

A report from Green Park found ethnic minority representation across FTSE 100 companies had fallen over the past 12 months, with BAME representation on executive and non-executive boards dropping to 7 per cent in 2019 from 9 per cent in 2018. It said ethnic diversity improvement had “stalled” at “almost every seniority level” since the firm began measuring it 2014.

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The report also found there were only 10 BAME individuals working as chair, CEO or CFO across the FTSE 100, making up just 3.3 per cent of leaders at this level of business. Almost half (47) of the top 100 companies had all-white staff at the board and executive leadership level, and at the current rate of change, it would take until 2039 for all FTSE 100 boards to have at least one BAME representative.’’

This was a “far cry” from government-backed target to have no all-white boards by 2021, the report said.

Dr Jill Miller, diversity and inclusion adviser at the CIPD, said the figures made for “very disappointing reading”.

“Employers need to get serious about examining why BAME talent is not making it to the top leadership roles, by scrutinising their practices and policies on recruitment, development and progression,” she said, adding that HR teams had a key role to play by using their people data to understand the experiences of BAME employees.

“By gathering this insight, barriers to inclusivity and equality of opportunities specific to the organisation can be identified and removed,” she said.

Frank Douglas, CEO of Caerus Executive, told People Management he was not surprised by the figures and called on HR to "hold a mirror up to itself" in order to affect change in business, as he pointed out the profession lacked ethnic diversity across its own senior levels.

"I was the last black FTSE group HR director, and I've been out of the corporate world for about six or seven years now," Douglas said. "So the profession is not addressing diversity within its own ranks, and from my point of view, that does not really give us licence to talk about and promote diversity in the wider corporate setting, if we're not walking the walk ourselves."

He said HR should not expect diversity to be embedded into talent development, recruitment and "all the things that go into being a CEO” if as a function it was still unable to look at such issues through a diversity lens.

"HR talks about how they want to sit at the table, but if we are going to have a seat at the table, the profession has to take accountability for the make-up of the executive ranks of the companies it works for," Douglas said. 

Green Park revealed progress on gender diversity continued, with women now holding 29 per cent of board and executive director level posts in FTSE 100 firms.

Since the report was first issued in 2014, the number of women working as chair, CEO or CFO in the FTSE 100 has increased from 10 to 26. 

At this rate, Green Park expected a third of board and executive committee roles would be held by women within the coming years – but this would still be later than the 2020 target set by the government-backed Hampton-Alexander Review. 

Green Park’s forecast is slightly more pessimistic than that of the latest Hampton-Alexander Review, which recently announced the UK’s top companies were still on track to meet the target of a third of women holding boardroom positions by 2020. It said last year was one of the strongest for progression since the target was set in 2011.