Business leaders need to be brave in taking a stance against racism in the workplace, author Reni Eddo-Lodge has told delegates on the opening day of the CIPD’s Annual Conference and Exhibition.
Speaking via livestream at the virtual event, Eddo-Lodge, who authored the award-winning book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, warned there was a “cynical backlash” happening against conversations about race and racism, but that it was up to leaders to be brave and take a stance.
“Leaders need to be brave enough to [say] ‘we think that this is the right thing to do and we’re not going to bend ourselves into the shape of a pretzel to please everyone because the truth is, up until very recently, anti-racism was not popular’,” Eddo-Lodge said.
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“We do it because we think it’s going to affect the world in a positive way even after we’re gone, not because we want to be friends with everyone, because if you want to be friends with everyone don’t be an anti-racist.”
Explaining the premise of her bestselling book, Eddo-Lodge said she was tired of having conversations about race “on very dodgy, bad faith terms”, and said HR departments needed to be aware of the power of imbalances that exist in their organisations when trying to address the issue. “Often I would be the only black person in the room and I felt that by raising these issues I may experience some level of social punishment, which meant that I wasn’t able to participate in my support groups or my workplace friendship groups,” she said.
“There was a power imbalance. All groups of people lean towards an editorial line, if you want to call it that, and sometimes challenging it is actually a socially dangerous thing to do.”
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Eddo-Lodge also said businesses needed to be aware how different disadvantages can intersect with each other. For example, the majority of black Britons are also working class, which brings its own set of barriers. “It’s about being aware that these things overlap. Not being myopic, but pulling back and [thinking] how are these different disadvantages interacting with each other,” she said.
She also highlighted how organisations needed to look at their structures and understand whether they were disadvantaging people: “Pull back, do an audit and, if it is, how do we remedy that. I can’t personally speak to that because I’m not in your organisations, but I think that would be the one takeaway that I would like any HR professional to really meditate on,” she said.
Opening the conference, Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, addressed the exceptional circumstances HR professionals have had to work through over the last year. “We have been living through lots of different changes this year, such as the environmental crisis and the economic crisis both from 2018 and again this year as a result of the pandemic,” he said.
“There is no doubt in my mind as I talk to HR leaders and practitioners everywhere, that we have never worked harder and never been more at the centre of the response of organisations to change,” Cheese said, but added that the pandemic also created opportunities for the profession to position itself as an important partner in business.
“[The crisis] does create opportunities for us in the positioning of the profession going forwards so there is a lot for us to work on and a lot of things that we want to share during the course of this conference about how we build back better.”