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Ethnic minority HRs subject to racism and barriers to progression, poll finds

26 Aug 2020 By Francis Churchill

Discrimination often originates from practitioners’ own teams, People Management survey reveals, as experts urge the profession to role model the right behaviours

Ethnic minority HR professionals are far more likely than their white counterparts to miss out on career opportunities and be on the receiving end of racism or discrimination, a poll by People Management has found out.

The survey, which polled 110 ethnic minority and 108 white HR professionals, found 95 per cent of ethnic minority respondents had experienced occasional or persistent microaggressions during their career, compared to 16 per cent of white respondents. More than half (57 per cent) reported being subject to racial stereotyping (compared to 18 per cent of white respondents) and 16 per cent verbal harassment (compared to 5 per cent white). 

More than half (55 per cent) of ethnic minority respondents said this racism originated from their own HR teams. Additionally, 65 per cent said it came from seniors in the wider business, 49 per cent from peers and juniors in the wider business, and 27 per cent from professionals external to their organisation.



Similarly, 69 per cent of ethnic minority respondents said their career progression had been obstructed because of their race, compared to only 6 per cent of white respondents. Conversely, more than three-quarters (76 per cent) of white respondents said race had not affected their career progression at all, compared to just 6 per cent of ethnic minority respondents.

Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, described the survey findings as “disappointing”, particularly given “HR professionals have a critical role to play in tackling racism at work”. He stressed the importance of the profession role modelling inclusive behaviours and processes, and anti-racism, to effect change in the wider business.

“We know we have more to do in increasing opportunity and progression for people from ethnic minorities, but we must also ensure our own behaviours reflect what we expect of others,” Cheese said. “Having a significant number of ethnic minority people professionals from this sample saying they have been on the receiving end of racism originating from their own HR team is sobering and should make us all more aware of what we need to do.” 


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The survey also found a disparity between the two groups when it came to their perceptions of race and racism in the workplace – specifically whether opportunities to progress in HR were equal for all ethnic groups in the UK.

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 HR practitioners thought opportunities were definitely or fairly equal, but only 9 per cent of ethnic minority colleagues agreed, suggesting a lack of awareness among some regarding the barriers that existed for ethnic minority colleagues.

Alongside these figures, ethnic minority respondents shared some of their experiences as HR professionals as part of the survey. “I was not given equal opportunities to develop and progress in my career and I was paid less than anyone else in my team. Even new starters were getting paid more than I did,” one respondent wrote, adding that while they were pushed out of the organisation (and eventually took them to a tribunal), all of their white colleagues were given opportunities to progress.

Another respondent said that, although they had worked in HR for 10 years, they had only ever met two other senior HR people with ethnic minority backgrounds. “When you are a [person of colour] and you attend an interview at an organisation that has no one other than white employees, you learn not to expect a call back,” they said.

“During my time as a people assistant I was told by my manager in front of a wider group that I tick all the boxes and I'm a great find for the D&I programme,” another respondent wrote, adding that, at some point: “You no longer remember [racist incidents] as it's just part of normality. HR needs to stop being thought of as an inclusive and high and mighty group of people who have a great moral compass because it's far from it.”

The survey found that a lack of role models with ethnic minority backgrounds was a blocker to career progression for more than two-thirds (67 per cent) of ethnic minority respondents. 

Ethnic minority HR professionals were also more likely to report being overlooked for development opportunities than white HR professionals (67 per cent and 6 per cent respectively); to be overlooked for promotion (56 per cent and 4 per cent); to be turned down for a job (56 per cent and 2 per cent); and to feel the need to censor their true personality or identity at work (57 per cent and 2 per cent).

A quarter (25 per cent) of respondents with ethnic minority backgrounds said they were subjected to more formal processes as part of performance management. No white respondents said the same.

Official figures show ethnic minorities are under-represented in the HR profession in the UK, with recent data from the Office for National Statistics showing that ethnic minority individuals make up 14 per cent of the UK’s general working age population, but just 9.5 per cent of the HR profession (and 8.9 per cent of HR managers and directors, so those at the most senior levels).

“While we want to see organisations hiring more HR professionals with ethnic minority backgrounds, we must ensure they are given support and equal opportunity as well as being treated fairly and with respect, as any of us would expect,” said Cheese. “At the CIPD we have committed to doing more to effect positive change in this area, from promoting greater transparency and reporting including ethnic pay gaps, as well as shining a stronger light on role models, rolling out mentoring programmes and reporting on progress across the profession. 

“Inclusion and fairness should be an agenda at the heart of our plans for all organisations. But we can’t effect change if within the profession we ourselves are not role modelling the behaviours and practices that we espouse. Now is the time to be open and honest about where we are and what we need to change as well.”

Suki Sandhu, founder and CEO of INvolve, and one of 20 to feature on People Management’s inaugural D&I Power List last month, said it was “astounding” that so many HR professionals with ethnic minority backgrounds felt their career progression had been obstructed because of their race. “Companies must admit there is a problem when it comes to race in the workplace and take clear actions to address it,” he said, adding that a lack of senior role models for those with ethnic minority backgrounds had a “direct knock-on impact” on the opportunities available. “This is unmistakably mirrored in these figures,” said Sandhu. 

“Employees must be able to see diverse talent scattered across the board, positioned throughout middle management and being actively drawn into the business at entry level too.” 

Sandhu called for allies within businesses to step up to help those with ethnic minority backgrounds overcome these barriers. “Coaching and mentoring is absolutely vital,” he said. “Senior executives have the power and influence needed to drive tangible change, improving visibility in the workplace and removing obstacles that have been identified by ethnic minority team members.”

“Listening, understanding and responding to issues with a commitment to action is what will open doors for ethnic minority employees,” Sandhu said, adding that while talking about race in the workplace would feel uncomfortable for some, companies had to “break through these small obstacles if they were to address the big issue of racial inequality and reap the benefits that a diverse workplace and inclusive culture can bring”.

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