Does the BAME label help or hinder workplace diversity?

Experts debate the role of terminology after MP’s concerns over ‘patronising’ language

The use of race-based labels such as BAME is only one part of a wider debate about inclusion in the workplace, experts have said, following comments made by MP Priti Patel that the term is “unnecessary”, “insulting” and “patronising”

The black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) label is often used by diversity and inclusion professionals to audit staff diversity and signify efforts to make workplaces more diverse.

Recent reports on BAME employee experiences at work have indicated that those from minority backgrounds face greater challenges in progressing their careers than others. 

But in a recent radio interview, Patel said she personally found the label “unhelpful”, because “we are people and everybody wants to be recognised for their individual merits”. She disliked “the labelling of people. I don't like the term BAME. I'm British first and foremost, because I was born in Britain.” 

Suki Sandhu, CEO and founder of Involve – an organisation that promotes diversity in the workplace – said he disagreed that the BAME term was insulting and added: “Ethnic minorities cannot hide race. When we walk into a room, people can see it. Being BAME highlights our differences, and highlights the all-too-often lack of diversity in those rooms we are entering. 

“I think we need to understand the benefit that using these labels can have. They help us position ourselves as a role models, which can have a hugely positive impact for future generations.”

A key focus for Involve is promoting ethnic diversity in the workplace, particularly through the use of role models. It produces an annual list highlighting successful BAME executives who serve as role models to younger generations. At a time when there are only six FTSE 100 CEOs who are from an ethnic minority, the organisation said there was a need for this conversation to be had.

Wanting to be treated as equal to other employees has been a key message of many surveys conducted recently, which found that BAME candidates were more likely to face discrimination at work than others.  

In a recent CIPD report, almost one in three black employees said they believed discrimination had been a factor in their lack of career progression – three times the number of white British staff who reported facing the same issues – while 20 per cent of BAME employees said discrimination had been a factor in their career, compared to one in 10 white British colleagues.

Patel said she resisted labelling and instead wanted to be treated the same as other people: “[I’ve asked] colleagues in the Conservative Party and in Westminster: don't label me as a BME. I've said that to people in the cabinet. I've said that to civil servants. I think it's patronising and insulting."

Some HR professionals People Management spoke to felt that rejecting the label may minimise a fundamental aspect of identity for people with minority backgrounds. 

Shakil Butt, consultant at HR Hero for Hire, attributed the problem to racism. He said that to ignore race was to ignore a fundamental part of identity in an environment where the playing field was not level. 

“My colour is a big part of me. It doesn’t define me or limit me – but it is part of me. And colour is, unfortunately, in the workplace, a part of how others view you and define you, and it is something that can limit you. To reject this would be to ignore the realities of living and working today,” he said. 

“I want to be judged for who I am, not what I am, but as long as racism exists – and it is embedded in many institutions, organisations and workplaces across society – then labelling does matter. It is part of our identity, and our conversation. 

“Of course, BAME is not a catch-all, we are not a homogenous group, but it’s important to have people who are facing the same challenges come together under a rallying point and stand together.” 

While diversity at board level is an issue for many organisations, Butt added that HR has a fundamental role to play in increasing diversity across organisations without resorting to tokenism. 

“Many people are keen to argue that more diversity and ethnic diversity on boards will have a ripple effect across an organisation, and there is truth in that, but the role HR professionals have to play is much broader,” he said. 

During her interview, Patel said she was keen to see more people with Indian backgrounds getting involved in politics. But she thought it could be a "regressive step" for a political party or government to put people in posts "just because they are women or because they represent a minority group".

Butt said the responsibility to improve diverse representation in workplaces mainly lay with HR: “They are supposed to be the gatekeepers to organisations, and the champions of values, so having a diverse HR function will help increase diversity across all levels of an organisation. 

“If you have a diverse HR team and a diverse recruitment panel, it becomes harder for old school management thinking to appoint more of the same. We need to not just be rubber stamping management decisions. We are there to be a voice for those who have no voice.”

Last month (21 February) the government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy called on employers to publish breakdowns of their workforce by race and pay band, as it commissioned a report to scrutinise the actions employers had taken on ethnic minority progression following the 2017 McGregor-Smith review into race in the workplace. 

Speaking to People Management, Sandra Kerr, race equality director at Business in the Community, said organisations needed to become more comfortable discussing race at work. 

“Our 2015 Race at Work report asked people from all ethnicities whether their organisation was comfortable talking about race – and people were more likely to answer ‘no’,” she said. 

“But if you can’t talk openly about it, look at those challenges around pay gaps and ask why there are no BAME people at the top of your organisation, it will be very hard to find solutions.” 

Butt called on BAME individuals who had achieved positions of power not to distance themselves from their identity, and to support other BAME people in progressing and moving forward.

“When people of difference rise to senior roles, they sometimes attempt to ignore that difference at a time when they have to be visible and act as a champion for other people to rise,” he said. 

In a recent study, 52 per cent of more than 1,400 workers surveyed by business psychologists Pearn Kandola said they had witnessed an act of racism at work, but a third of them said they had not reported it to their employer.