Long reads

Why is HR so white?

20 Aug 2020 By Arvind Hickman

Official figures show less than one in 10 people practitioners is from an ethnic minority background – so how can the profession start leading by example on racial diversity? 

Of all the strides made to address issues of gender and LGBT+ inclusion, there is one area of D&I that has long been placed by many firmly in the ‘too hard’ basket: ethnic diversity. Racism is a thorny topic to talk about even among friends, nevermind in the workplace. 

And yet the tragic murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer this year has brought such conversations very much to the fore. The anger and protests that followed have reverberated to boardrooms across the world, forcing business leaders to reflect on whether they are doing enough to address racial inequality within their organisations.

Where the answer is ‘no’ – as it has proved in many cases – quickly called into the room to discuss, and hopefully work on meaningful plans to move the dial on this, is HR. But what of the profession’s own ethnic diversity? Is this where it should be in the UK? And if not, why not – and what needs to change?

Recent Office for National Statistics figures show that 9.5 per cent of HR professionals come from an ethnic minority background. This includes 12.8 per cent of HR and industrial relations officers, 10.2 per cent of HR administrative occupations, 8.9 per cent of HR managers and directors and 7 per cent of vocational and industrial trainers and instructors. This compares to a figure of 14 per cent for the general working age population in the UK (40.6 per cent in London, 40 per cent in Birmingham and 35 per cent in Manchester).

By contrast, finance and healthcare, for example, boast much higher levels of representation. A recent study of the UK’s 10 largest accounting firms found that 25 per cent of professionals have an ethnic minority background – though this dropped dramatically to 6 per cent at partnership level. In the NHS, ethnic minority talent makes up 20.8 per cent of the workforce, including 44.4 per cent of medical staff.

HR, then, has a representation issue, particularly at senior levels. Frank Douglas, CEO of HR consultancy Caerus Executive and former HR director at Misys Banking Systems, Transport for London and Shell, confirms there is a ‘tinted’ glass ceiling in HR, particularly for black men. He is aware of only two black HR directors in the history of the FTSE 250: Jean Tomlin (Marks and Spencer) and himself.

Douglas, an American who moved to the UK 17 years ago, senses this could have been even lower – a miniscule one – if he was black British. “There are institutional issues and barriers here,” he says. “As an American, I was given a licence to challenge; people think that’s just what Americans do – they are ‘straight talkers’. If I was black British, there would have been an assumption that I would have to stay in my lane and I might have been penalised for questioning things. If you’re perceived as an aggressive black person, that can work against you.”

In a similar vein, Shakil Butt, founder of HR Hero for Hire and former HROD at Islamic Relief Worldwide, reports that after being made redundant from the latter organisation, he struggled to find another HRD role. “It was very clear to me, after about a year or so of applying, that I wasn’t going to get back into the HRD role; there was something blocking me returning to that senior position,” he says, adding that final selection panels were always all white.

“I then applied for head of HR roles, but I would encounter the problem of being too experienced. I couldn’t move up or down, so I moved into the consultancy space. When you are pushed back and back and back, you take yourself out of the equation. It became obvious to me that there is a bias.”

Fortunately or unfortunately – depending on how you look at it – HR seems by no means a special case in this regard. In communications and PR, for example, only 8 per cent of the workforce have an ethnic minority background, with leadership representation falling to mid-single digits. In advertising and media, 13.7 per cent of staff have an ethnic minority background and only 4.7 per cent of C-suite leaders. Additionally, research by the Runnymede Trust found 79 per cent of ethnic minority employees across the workforce were not satisfied with their career progression, compared with only 26 per cent of white colleagues. 

The difference, of course, is the critical role HR professionals should be playing to ensure the ethnic diversity of their wider organisations and to tackle such issues of progression. As important as white HR and D&I practitioners’ efforts may be here, for many the profession simply won’t make the progress needed on wider organisational issues of race and racial inequality if it’s not diverse enough itself.

A lack of cultural competency within HR shapes the very policies and cultures of a business, creating an environment where ethnic minority individuals may not feel welcome and cannot flourish, says Femi Otitoju, founder and managing director at Challenge Consultancy. “A lack of representation inside HR potentially damages people’s confidence in reporting or seeking help from the department,” she says. “It also affects the expectations we have of our line managers. If we don’t know what our black and minority ethnic people need, then we don’t know what to offer our managers to skill them up a bit.”

CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese adds: “If your HR department is not diverse enough, you’re not going to get innovation and creativity to break down the barriers of group think. You’re also not going to be representative of the organisation that you’re trying to create of which HR is part, and it’s not reflective of wider society or your organisation’s customer base.”

So just what problems must HR overcome to ensure anyone with any background feels able to join and progress within the profession? For a start, there must be clarity and honesty about the fact that, according to the lived experiences of its ethnic minority members, HR professionals are no more immune to the unconscious bias, microaggressions and overt racism experienced by the broader workforce. 

People Management’s recent survey on racial equality in HR found 95 per cent of ethnic minority respondents had faced occasional or persistent microaggression during their HR career. More than half (57 per cent) had experienced racial stereotyping and 16 per cent verbal harassment. And only 8 per cent said they hadn’t experienced any form of racism during their careers.

When Douglas first moved to the UK he felt “very strong pushback” and was subject to “borderline bullying” and racial “microaggressions”, he says. He recalls one instance of a manager calling him to a meeting on the staircase to hand him a one-off bonus for a successful project because “he did not in any way want to be seen elevating or raising my profile”.

For many, greater transparency is needed to shine a light on how ethnic minority HR talent is treated on the job – which would go a long way to kick-starting conversations around progression and retention. Otitoju believes there are two areas that need to be addressed to improve ethnic minority HR practitioners’ workplace experiences. “First, the structures are too opaque, so it’s difficult for us to work out what it is that BAME talent needs to do to succeed,” she says. 

“And we need to challenge implicit associations about which types of people are good. We need to better understand the obstacles and structures that black, Asian and minority ethnic people face in our institutions.” She would also like to see targets set for HR teams to illustrate what they are doing to invest and develop talent with different backgrounds. This includes holding HR managers to account over who they choose for stretch projects, attending meetings above their rank and career development opportunities.

Also crucial, however, is recognising that not enough ethnic minority individuals currently select HR as a career in the first place. Along with other ‘less traditional, academic’ professions – as evidenced by the finance versus communications and PR figures, for example, above – HR has an image problem within certain communities. Otitoju sums up how a typical conversation might go between a young person who wants to get into HR and their parents: “‘What do you mean you’re not doing medicine or accountancy or engineering? What is this thing you’re calling HR?’ 

“Is there a problem – yes, definitely. But there’s also a difference in the way people of Caribbean and African descent, particularly men, are attracted to the profession compared to those of Asian descent. We don’t attract black African and Caribbean men,” she adds.

The people profession has historically not put enough effort into counteracting this, says Douglas. “There’s a breakdown in how HR has branded itself,” he says. “Have we communicated and gone into inner-city schools, universities and ethnic minority communities to make HR a welcoming career? The answer is probably ‘no’. HR has not been aggressive in saying there’s a part of our population that is suffering from benign neglect and we need to do something. Race is a difficult conversation outside the corporate world. I think it is even more difficult inside the corporate world.”

The profession also needs to take a long hard look at its hiring processes for once ethnic minority individuals are interested in a career in HR. The way the UK education system is currently set up means HR operates “almost like a closed shop”, says Jane Eme-Power, HR lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University. “If we haven’t got an education system set up to create a diverse range of highly qualified people, they’re not going to be knocking at the doors of those employers,” she says.

Velisa Williams, founder of Black and HR and employee relations business partner for technology at a large tech company, adds that private sector roles suffer from education elitism, which disproportionately affects ethnic minority talent because they are less likely to attend top universities. The problem for her is somewhat ‘chicken and egg’. The profession must tackle issues of attraction and representation to improve the experiences of ethnic minority professionals once working in HR, she says: “If you don’t have inclusiveness, when you’re looking at things like performance, you may judge them with different eyes to your white peers. If we had more diversity, an HR professional might understand and challenge how people of colour are perceived in HR.” 

Indeed, People Management’s survey uncovered something of a mismatch between ethnic minority and white people professionals’ perceptions of whether opportunities to progress in HR are equal for all ethnic groups. While 55 per cent of ethnic minority respondents said they were definitely not equal, only 18 per cent of white respondents said the same. Similarly, 42 per cent of white HRs thought opportunities were definitely or fairly equal, but only 9 per cent of ethnic minority colleagues agreed.

An important part of the ecosystem to address when it comes to approaches to hiring are external firms, says Douglas: “It’s a structural issue, a total breakdown in the system… So the first breakdown is the recruitment firms. What’s happening at the supply chain level that may be filtering out ethnic minorities? We can’t constantly let the supply chain off the hook when we should be asking what they are doing to promote ethnic minority progression.”

Given the role so many play in the overall HR ecosystem, experts agree a systemic problem won’t be found overnight. But there are some key areas that can hopefully be urgently addressed: fixing recruitment, improving the profession’s image and accessibility to ethnic minority communities, more data and insights to hold people departments to account, courage to challenge prevailing cultures and mindsets, and greater transparency on how people are treated.

The CIPD has made its commitment to being much more proactive on these fronts clear. Along with work to tackle wider issues of racism and racial inequality in the workplace, such as policy reform – including pushing for ethnicity pay gap reporting – and reviewing learning and teaching content on D&I and particularly race, it has also launched a range of activity to increase ethnic diversity among HR professionals and committed to improving its own internal practices. The body will focus on attracting more black and minority individuals into the profession and supporting them to progress, and has committed to shining a stronger light on role models, rolling out mentoring and coaching programmes, and reporting on progress. “We know the broad statistics, but we haven’t done enough to shine the light on them; it’s something we are working on,” says Cheese, adding: “We need to understand different ethnic groups such as black people versus Asian people versus Indian and mixed-race. 

“We are going to look at all of that and refresh where we need to on everything from how you understand bias in all its different forms, to how you create safe cultures where people with ethnic minority backgrounds can have open and honest conversations about how they’re treated.”

HR can ill-afford to stick its proverbial head in the sand. The business case for change is not shrouded in wokeness; there is a strategic and commercial imperative. “This is not an HR issue but a business issue,” Douglas says. “If you want to be competitive, you need to embrace it. I don’t think it’s just a moment that will pass. HR will struggle to be relevant in the conversation if it doesn’t act.” 

Cheese adds: “I would like to see in the foreseeable future diversity and inclusion becoming just part of what we do, driving good business and people management practices. It will embed into every part of teaching and thinking, every process in HR, recruitment, resourcing, training and learning, which has not always been the case.”

Butt is more blunt in his call for action: “I think as HR professionals, if we’re not adding that value to our organisation, we will become irrelevant and transactional… We have a mandate to champion and shape the values of an organisation. If we don’t live up to that mandate, we will lose it. 

“I don’t think there has been a platform to talk about racism openly and freely before the tragic murder of George Floyd. It’s always been the elephant in the room.” Now is the time, however, for HR to address the white elephant in the room – both in the wider workforce and in their own backyards.  

What does the future of the profession think?

Eight HR students told People Management what needs to change

A wider CIPD listening exercise on race recently kicked off with a student roundtable inviting eight ethnic minority students on Birmingham City University’s MA international HR management and BA (Hons) HR management courses to share their thoughts on whether the HR profession is currently diverse enough – and what they intend to change. Here were some of the key points raised:

Racism at work is still commonplace for many. Roundtable attendees shared various experiences of feeling discriminated against because of their race. One individual reported being surprised at how difficult it was to secure a job when they moved to the UK from Pakistan: “I applied for HR jobs everywhere and I didn’t get any response. It was a big shock for me because I had 10-12 years of experience in HR administration.” Another suspected it was their race that meant they were turned down for a work experience opportunity they’d requested. “The reason they gave was because it was [working with] confidential information,” they said, adding it was hard to say whether race played a role but they felt there was a “possibility” it did. 

The HR profession isn’t diverse enough. From their experiences so far in industry and attending HR events, the students agreed they hadn’t seen many people professionals who looked like them. “Once I started to think about it, that’s when I saw there wasn’t much diversity at all, especially when I attended some employment law update events,” one attendee commented. Another added: “On my master’s programme I didn’t have a black or Asian teacher. And there were no black or Asian influencers or hosts at the CIPD conferences I’ve attended.”

Role models are vital. Attendees confirmed lack of ethnic minority representation at senior levels in HR (and elsewhere in the business) was particularly apparent. “In my current placement, although it’s a diverse workforce, every one of the executive officers is white. So I can’t see myself in that position,” commented one participant. “It seems there’s a specific level in the UK you get to if you’re black in HR and that’s it, that’s where you stop,” another added. On the flipside, where role models were present it had a hugely motivating effect: “Within my first role the head of HR was Asian... That encouraged me to try to progress to a senior level. Before that, because it was so hard for me to get into HR, I was happy to reach a certain point, maybe HR adviser. Now I feel I could perhaps be a head of department or business partner.”

The next generation hopes to change things for the better. When asked what had attracted them to the profession in the first place, several attendees cited wanting to improve approaches to D&I and diversify the HR profession: “That inspires me actually – if there’s no one [like me] then I have to work extra hard and get that position.” Recruitment was one key area several mentioned as ripe for improvement, particularly with greater use of name-blind CVs. A more conscious effort to actively support junior HRs with ethnic minority backgrounds, such as through mentorship with senior leaders, was another key action cited. Attendees also agreed organisations needed holding to account on D&I and race: “If companies can show their corporate social responsibility on the environment, why not on diversity? So looking at: what have they done to promote diversity, and not just ‘we’ve put it in policies’?”

Check back online over the coming days for more exclusive findings from People Management's survey on racial equality in HR

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