Staff networks key to supporting BAME progression, employers told

Speakers at Westminster Employment Forum highlight that now is a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to address race inequality

Employee networks for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff are vital in helping employers promote a diverse range of talent, a senior civil service HR professional has said.

Bernadette Thompson, deputy director of inclusion, wellbeing and public appointments at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, said the civil service – like many organisations – suffers from an imbalance where BAME individuals are recruited into lower-level roles and are not able to progress to the top jobs.

Speaking at the Westminster Employment Forum conference yesterday, Thompson said: “Most of our organisations are like Guinness glasses – black at the bottom and white on top,” and called on employers to “mix up the Guinness glass”.

Employee network groups, particularly BAME or race networks, are vital in helping employers act on equality issues in the workplace – especially those around recruitment and progression – Thompson said. “It’s really important that you engage with employee network groups because we know what the problems are, and we can tell you how to fix it.”

“We have been talking about ethnic diversity, and the lack of it, at our most senior levels for decades, so we need to use this space that we’re in now to turn the dial,” she said, referencing the current Black Lives Matter protests that have spread from the US around the world.

Also speaking at the Westminster Employment Forum conference, David Isaac, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said this was a “once in a generation opportunity to seek to resolve” issues of race inequality in the workplace.

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He encouraged employers to begin collecting the workforce data they needed to conduct ethnicity pay gap reporting, adding that significant progress could be made in improving equality if firms published – and acted on – the difference in pay between ethnic groups.

Mandatory pay gap reporting was an effective tool to shine a light on inequalities in the workplace and it would not be “overly bureaucratic to introduce”, Isaac said. Collecting data on the pay differences experienced by different ethnic groups was “not difficult [or] too onerous” for employers, he added.

But, Isacc cautioned that such reporting was a “very crude tool” and called for any employer to also publish a narrative and action plan with time-bound targets, informed by an analysis of their ethnicity data – echoing calls for narratives to become a mandatory part of the gender pay reporting.

Over the weekend, a petition calling for mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting for UK firms with 250 or more staff has reached more than 100,000 signatures, meaning it will be considered by parliament for debate. Such a requirement has previously been considered by the government and a consultation on ethnicity pay gap reporting closed in January 2019; however, the outcome of the consultation has yet to be published.

Also speaking at the conference, Richard Iferenta, partner at KPMG and chair of Business in the Community's race diversity board, said he believed setting targets around diversity issues would give organisations the best chance of acting on change, especially when they are signed off by senior leaders. "We [KPMG] agreed on certain targets around the recruitment of black folk. And when it appeared that we would not meet the targets, we decided to launch a specific initiative focusing on the recruitment of black graduates," he said,

Iferenta added there was a clear focus on "not dropping the bar" on recruitment standards – "[It is] clear that we have enough black talent out there," he said. To do this, KPMG engaged with universities to make sure the firm was actively recruiting young talent, and the organisation has seen a consistent increase in the number of black graduates. "In the first year, we ended up recruiting 35 black graduates, and I was absolutely delighted," Iferenta said. "We did exactly the same thing the second year and were able to recruit 37."

He added that KPMG's leadership collectively agreed it wanted to increase that target this year, and that holding leadership accountable to agreed recruitment targets has given them the "best chance of getting there".