When entering the world of work, no one prepared me for the challenges I would encounter related to racial bias, or advised me on the safe spaces I’d need to access to voice any concerns. I wasn’t raised to focus on my skin colour, so I was naïve in thinking this wouldn't be a factor in some of my experiences.
When starting out, I questioned myself around the lack of representation of people who looked like me. Every manager was white. Throughout my career I have never had a direct line manager from an ethnic background. It became the norm to be the only non-white person in meetings at an early stage in my career and this remains unchanged.
I became a people professional unintentionally. I was working for a recruitment advertising consultancy supporting the graduate recruitment division and became passionate about fair and equal assessment for all candidates. I developed my career from there.
I don’t feel my career has been nurtured as I have seen with others who are non-black. I progressed through asking questions, requesting development and moving on if that was the only way to move up. I can’t ever recall being told: ‘This course would be great for you; I’d like to put you on it for your development and progression.’ I always had to ask. Others were offered opportunities.
The people profession is in a good place to exercise more overt ways to make companies more inclusive. It’s important to develop skills across the company for inclusive conversations so topics once perceived as taboo can be openly discussed in a constructive manner. This means accepting that everyone will have different perspectives, experiences and needs, but appreciating we can all learn and grow in our own self-awareness.
It is also important to ensure bias is addressed with full support and endorsement from leadership, so everyone is empowered to hold each other to account with diversity and inclusion built into behaviours, culture and ways of working. The challenge is making it happen. I was listening to a panel discussion recently and a comment from one panellist really resonated: “Everyone needs to check their friendship groups at work. Who do you most frequently turn to when you want to discuss an issue? If your work friendship groups all look like you, then you are not getting a diverse perspective and it sheds light on the level of inclusiveness within the culture of the company, that you only feel safe and comfortable speaking to those who look like you.”
It is necessary to create safe environments for employees to speak out and have their voices heard. Platforms that enable employees to anonymously raise concerns are helpful as this allows the company to gain meaningful insights because employees feel safe, knowing they are protected from repercussions.
In supporting progression, mentoring support is helpful for developing capability but does not address how you can overcome barriers. There should be specific support for black and ethnic minority employees to receive personalised guidance to overcome their own barriers to progression and build confidence to address such issues.
With regards to racial bias and blackness, people need to understand the history and struggles of black people. When we talk about our experiences, it is still difficult for unaffected groups to truly appreciate our perspective. The historical context of our existence needs to be presented and understood in order to demystify what we’ve been through and still go through. The erasing of black history from the mainstream is a major contributing factor in the lack of understanding and appreciation of the lens through which we experience the world. Here in the UK we have systemic institutionalised racism.
It is important for everyone to understand the different experiences within ethnic groups. African people are more likely to be forced to anglicise their names on CVs to avoid discrimination. Black Caribbean boys face disproportionate exclusion from school. All these factors affect educational attainment, social mobility, financial independence, health and wellbeing, employability and so on.
We all need to be talking about the lack of diversity in senior roles: 72 per cent of board and exec roles are occupied by white males, 25 per cent by white females and 3 per cent by black males/females: a figure that has remained static since 2014. Real progress is not being made and companies are not paying attention to why black and minority ethnic employees are not being developed and retained.
Everyone needs to think about what they can do to create the disruption needed to dismantle racism in the workplace. This truly is an issue for everyone. Everyone needs to stand and be active on anti-racism. Speak out when you see unfairness. Speak out when you know you are receiving a promotion that has not been advertised. Speak out when you get selected for development that you know would also benefit your black co-worker. Speak out when you get a pay rise and your black co-worker doing the same job does not. Speak out when someone has tapped only your shoulder about project opportunities. Speak out when your network tells you about vacancies. Speak out when leaders don’t hear minority voices. We want you to speak out and disrupt the paradigm for change.
A senior black HR professional