How can HR tackle racial inequity at the top?

With recent research showing half of senior black women have resigned because of racism, Yetunde Hofmann explains what organisations can do to stamp out bias

Credit: Rich Legg/Getty Images

It was announced recently that nearly all FTSE 100 companies have met the ‘One by 2021’ target set by the Parker Review to ensure they have at least one director from an ethnic minority background. In 2017, when the target was set, only 51 per cent of FTSE 100 companies had an ethnic minority director. Now 89 of the 100 companies do. It’s fantastic to see meaningful progress on this issue.

But this doesn’t mean the job is done. The evidence tells us that Black women are the least likely of any group to be among the UK’s top earners and half of senior black women say they have resigned from a position due to racism. Discrimination increases the higher up the career ladder they get. Last month a survey by Black Women in Leadership Network (BWIL) found that 68 per cent of Black women report experiencing racial bias at work. But, among Black women occupying senior management positions, this figure is as high as 84 per cent.

The issue HR faces is two-pronged. Firstly, we need to put into place actionable ways to empower more black women to reach the top. Secondly, we need to tackle the racism they experience when they get there. Here’s what HR can do to take action: 

  • Go beyond unconscious bias training. This is a good start but it’s not enough. Take a test like the Harvard Implicit Association Test to identify any biases or blind spots you might have personally, encourage your staff to do the same. Listen to Black women’s lived experiences, without being defensive, and become an ally. 

  • Make your exit interviews count. These are more than an administrative process, they are a chance to delve deep into someone’s experience, identify if racial discrimination was a factor in them leaving and ask what the company can do to improve. 

  • Publish your findings and demand time with key stakeholders. HR’s function is the most critical in the organisation and is a leadership function. Step into your leadership and leverage your influence with the C-suite to drive change. 

  • Set retention targets. This will help turn intentions into actions.

  • Examine the pay gap. Not everyone is materialistic, but everyone does need to be paid a fair wage and one that feels equal to their counterparts in the organisation, whatever their race or sex. 

  • Practice zero tolerance. Ensure every member of staff knows you take a zero-tolerance approach to racism and act quickly and decisively when an allegation surfaces.

  • Listen to Black women in the company. Don’t wait for them to depart before taking action. If they are vocal about problems it means they still are engaged – praise them for speaking up. 

  • It may not be only senior Black women. It will be those in the earlier stages of their career too. Some of these women will be in HR. 

  • HR should look at why Black women in their own teams depart too. It is likely that they will have felt excluded. Less than 10 per cent of HR professionals in the workplace are from a different race to the majority. Take care of the people in your own home first and set an example for others to follow.

  • Reverse mentoring gets inconsistent results. It can be a brilliant tool but, to ensure that it pays off, brief both parties fully. This is not about rescuing, or giving favours or being simply a listening ear. It is about navigation, questioning, education, being accountable and being responsible.

  • Create a structured onboarding programme for new starters. Get them involved in making changes they would like to see happen. Ask them for any specific needs that they may have. It is okay to name the elephant in the room – i.e. “You will be the first and/or only Black female in this leadership team. What should we watch out for? What can we do to ensure that you hit the ground running and are made to know and feel that you belong? You are valuable and an asset.’

  • Remember that representation and role modelling is key. If there are other senior Black women in the organisation, even if in different parts of the world, introduce and connect them.

  • Don’t set pay based on previous salary. The mistake HR makes, at times, is to make a new hire, ask the hire what salary they are currently on, then increase this by a percentage above the norm and expect them to be happy. Then they start the job and find out that they are paid less than their colleagues. This perpetuates the gender pay gaps and leads to discontent. Eventually, they will vote with their feet.

Yetunde Hofmann is a board-level executive leadership coach and mentor, global change, inclusion and diversity expert, author of Beyond Engagement and founder of Solaris