It was only three years ago, at a conference about race, that I overheard several directors of diversity and inclusion, from a number of high-profile organisations, saying that racism was becoming a thing of the past. Talking to the senior partner of a major accountancy firm, he refused to accept that any racism in his organisation was down to anything other than malevolent individuals. He didn't acknowledge that they had any particular role to play in ensuring people were treated fairly and with respect.
A year later, in 2020, these directors had to radically rethink their ideas. Whether their responses to the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing worldwide protests were genuine or merely performative, only time will tell. The complacency around the topic of race that existed before 2020 could well reinstate itself unless we remain focused and vigilant.
A checklist exercise
While Black History Month shines an important light on the topic of racial equity in the workplace, organisations often respond to it in a superficial way. The issues discussed do not disappear when the month is over, but the conversations significantly die down. For some businesses, Black History Month is considered a checklist exercise, a form of organisational virtue signalling that does not, in fact, drive progress in EDI.
It’s not only a diverse workforce that is needed to facilitate a deep sharing of knowledge and ideas. Inclusivity is just as important, and all employees should feel a shared sense of belonging which, in turn, enables them to feel comfortable, confident and inspired.
Leaders have a crucial part to play in ensuring inclusivity. But what is inclusive leadership? In essence, it’s a management technique that helps all members of a team to feel as though they’re treated with respect and equality.
It may sound simple to implement; however, many employees, such as those with Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, often feel excluded and less valued than those from the majority. The signals they receive that lead to this sense of exclusion can be very subtle, but they can have a profound impact; for example, being ignored in meetings and then being interrupted when they do contribute; being constantly criticised; and being on the receiving end of demeaning ‘jokes’ that are dismissed as ‘banter’. Minorities can regularly experience behaviours like these within their workplace, making them feel disconnected and excluded from the majority group. It can lead individuals to speak less or even withdraw totally from a situation, having a negative effect on their performance and their confidence.
Being an inclusive leader isn’t necessarily about engaging with staff personally, but can involve improving the office environment as well. While these behaviours may be small they are observable. Having leaders who are aware of how someone can be excluded means they can intervene in an appropriate fashion. The consequences will be seen in terms of team cohesion as well as individual and group performance.
To create truly inclusive workplaces, discussions around race at work need to happen continually. This means listening to the experiences of employees and implementing actionable solutions throughout the year. As part of this, leaders need to take accountability, fostering inclusive behaviours, setting an example when it comes to challenging stereotypical attitudes, and being open to being challenged themselves. It also requires having effective policies and procedures in place, in recruitment, selection and promotion, for example.
Similarly, livening up the office environment and allowing employees to get involved and network among themselves, as well as working together to achieve important goals, will foster a sense of inclusion for everyone.
Being an active ally
A study carried out by Pearn Kandola found that more half (52 per cent) of Brits have observed racist behaviour at work. Although we’ve recently seen an increase in reported levels of inappropriate behaviours, sadly, most people who witness racist behaviour do nothing about it.
All of us who witness inappropriate behaviour are bystanders, but it’s our choice as to whether we’re a passive or active bystander. The former is someone who witnesses a behaviour but does nothing about it. The latter is someone who chooses to act when they witness a behaviour, challenging it in an attempt to prevent it from happening again. The main reason given as to why people take no action is that they were afraid of the consequences. It is important therefore that an environment of psychological safety is created so that we may have more inclusion.
Sustainable EDI practices
Race is a crucial, yet often neglected, part of the puzzle; however, for organisations to create sustainable EDI practices they need to use their learnings to improve inclusivity for everyone. This means closely examining the organisation’s culture as well as tackling issues such as harrassment, unconscious bias and religious and disability discrimination.
Appointing a director of EDI can be an actionable next step for businesses, but that person needs to have a clear remit, accountability and reporting structures. It’s not an opportunity to pass on the responsibility of creating a diverse and inclusive workplace.
Black History Month should be more than a performance; it should be a time to reflect on our organisation’s cultures. We can all seize this opportunity to take a good, hard look at our own attitudes to race, and our responses to complaints and practices that may be perpetuating race discrimination within our organisations – as well as, importantly, ensuring these conversations continue to happen beyond October.
Binna Kandola is a business psychologist, senior partner and co-founder of Pearn Kandola