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10 things HR gets wrong in tackling racial bias

21 Oct 2021 By Yetunde Hofmann

While their intentions may be good, people professionals often make critical mistakes when trying to improve their organisation's inclusion and diversity, explains Yetunde Hofmann

HR is the most critical department in an organisation. It is a leadership function and its role is becoming increasingly pivotal to establishing a culture in which everyone in an organisation, without exception, can thrive and feel they genuinely belong. 

The importance of HR’s contribution to the world of work makes it even more heart-wrenching when attempts to tackle racial bias in the workplace yield less than acceptable results and receive a ‘could do much better’ report. I have reflected not only on my own conduct as an HR leader but also on the experiences I have had, and continue to have, of other HR leaders (not all, I hasten to add) across the industry today. Here are the 10 things that I believe HR gets wrong in tackling racial bias: 

Not diversifying itself

When the very profession that should be at the forefront of the agenda in driving diversity and tackling racial inequality and bias is itself not racially diverse, it makes it difficult for HR to appreciate the depth of the challenges and the issues. It can lead to a lack of awareness and in-depth understanding. The CIPD’s Race Inclusion Report revealed that 88 per cent of CIPD members identify as white and less than 10 per cent of HR professionals in the workplace are from an ethnic minority background. The percentage is even smaller at more senior levels, with very few group HR directors and chief people officers being from a race other than white. When every HR leader decides to introduce racial diversity in their teams, and visibly so, there will be a butterfly effect on the wider organisation. 

Not holding one’s self and others accountable

An area in which HR, and its leadership, lets the racial minorities in their workforce down is around accountability. If we had held ourselves accountable for the delivery of decisive and game-changing initiatives and held our colleagues and our CEOs accountable, significant progress would have been made. Being accountable means being willing to stand up and be counted; setting meaningful, tangible, visible targets and objectives; reporting externally and internally on progress; and being transparent about mistakes made and learnings to be had. A report on the experience of HR by the black talent at Amazon is one indication of how far the profession has to travel. To drive change, it will take an HR leader who knows the value of purpose-led leadership, appreciates the responsibility of this important role and is willing to put the interests of the organisation and all its people first. 

The slow pace of reviewing existing people processes

The people processes and systems employed within many organisations are inherently biased and it’s essential to address this. If you’re not white, you’re on the back foot before you even applied for the job, promotion or pay rise. The processes of attraction, recruitment, onboarding, career development, appointment and performance management should be dismantled and put back together again when bias has been eliminated. There are qualified and reputable diversity and inclusion specialists and consultants who are available to support at each stage of the talent attraction, performance and development process. 

A reluctance or inability to provide data and reporting

A surprisingly large number of organisations still don’t have their data right when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Others still do not collect data on ethnicity, as the CIPD's Race Inclusion Report shows. Although there is increasing progress, the organisations that do want to collect data find the process challenging and onerous. Some are, therefore, reluctant to gather the data and no one finds it an easy task. The lack of available data then makes it difficult to set targets and objectives to deal with the issues that exist. It is, however, encouraging and inspiring to read that the CIPD has stepped forward and called for mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting by all FTSE 100 companies by 2023, given that today only 13 of them do so.

The reporting lines of heads of inclusion and diversity

It is great that high-profile individuals are being appointed as chief inclusion officers and heads of inclusion and belonging, as well as that more companies are introducing these roles. It is doubly encouraging when people of colour are appointed into them. This is, however, not enough. The HR profession should be ensuring that these roles report directly to the CEO and/or the board and that they are given the mandate and the resources, both financial and non-financial, to drive change at a pace that is needed. While it is not possible to drive change from the outside of an organisation, it is possible to effect change when the specialism of inclusion and diversity partners with HR. But, it will not be as effective if this role sits within the function of HR and reports to an HR leader, who may not understand the impact of racism at the very core of the organisation, no matter how subtle. 

Putting all races into one basket

A reluctance to drive specific initiatives towards race, the black talent and in particular the black women in an organisation is often cited as a desire to avoid excluding other minorities in the organisation. It is encouraging to learn that the expression ‘BAME’ is becoming unpopular, as it may prevent the real issues and needs of the diverse communities of talent being tackled and met, as illustrated in a BBC report. It is ironic that companies are quick to introduce customer and consumer segmentation systems and yet when it comes to the development of their most precious resource – their talent – they are less willing to do this. When HR seizes the initiative – and it can – to segment the talent in their organisation to meet specific individual and community needs then a genuinely inclusive workplace can be established.

Taking the easy way out 

This means that as soon as there is any initiative to do with race and diversity, the first person that is turned to is the lone black person and/or person of colour in the company. This is often done without paying much attention to their desire or capability to be involved. The fact that your talent may experience discrimination, microaggressions and bias based on their race and that they want to experience change does not mean that it is their area of specialism or interest. The influence that HR has in organisations can make it difficult for the individuals approached to say ‘no’ to requests to participate, without fear of the repercussions. Taking the time to genuinely consult, to invest adequate resources in external specialist help and to facilitate an environment in which all your people can freely contribute, will enable an atmosphere of transparency and speaking up that will lead to sustained good. 

The reluctance to take risks

To effectively tackle racial bias in the workplace there must be a willingness to try the unknown and the unfamiliar, and to sacrifice levels of comfort for the greater good of the team. This means being willing to work with that little known supplier, to challenge your colleague on a hiring decision to take a chance on that person who is not the finished article but demonstrates significant potential, to be the lone voice that backs and advocates challenging KPIs; to call out the bad behaviour of that charismatic and influential stakeholder with whom you have a great relationship. The list could go on. What a reluctance to take risks implies is a lack of commitment and belief in the real benefits of an inclusive workplace that embraces all races. When an HR function is led from the top, by a leader who believes that the eradication of racial bias is the right thing to do, progress can and will be made. Glassdoor celebrates companies who are doing this.

Focusing on diversity over equality and inclusion

There is no doubt that, when harnessed, diversity enables a richness of ideas and creativity. Difference, when valued, can lead to breakthroughs, as coming at problems and ways of doing things from different perspectives can make life at work not only enjoyable but productive. Laudable initiatives like reverse mentoring and the assignment of in-house sponsors help facilitate this. However, all this is lost if inclusion is not at first established, as has been highlighted in a McKinsey report, which illustrates how progress is slowed in the absence of inclusion and this Forbes article in which the writer advocates the importance of inclusion in enabling diversity. No matter how good your hiring policies may be, if the talent hired feels unwelcome and undervalued then all is lost. We must reprioritise. HR must seek to establish a culture in which everyone feels safe and able to bring their whole selves to work without fear of reproach. 

Not making the pursuit of love-based leadership a priority 

Love is the unconditional acceptance of all of who you are, warts and all, and the unconditional acceptance of another person, warts and all. Black History Month presents an opportunity for HR leaders and teams to genuinely explore the opportunity and the difference that a love-based culture and leadership would make in their organisations. 

If inclusion enables diversity, then love is fundamental to inclusion. When a leader operates from a place of love it means a willingness to listen not only to lived negative experiences of the black talent in an organisation but a willingness to elicit and act on what can be done to change those experiences into positive ones. It means a willingness to put in place personal, leadership and career development interventions for black talent and underpinning these with measurable goals.

For the HR leader personally, love-based leadership means the pursuit of self-mastery – to be the very best possible version of yourself. They would do this knowing that the impact that could be generated in their teams and the organisation is one that would result in a workplace where everyone, without exception, would be free to be all of who they are. If HR chose to pursue only one thing because of Black History Month, it should be the presence of love – that unconditional acceptance of self and others – in the workplace. This is the key that unlocks inclusion and diversity and ultimately eradicates the presence of racial bias and indeed any other bias. 

Yetunde Hofmann is a board-level executive leadership coach and mentor, global change, inclusion and diversity expert, author of Beyond Engagement and founder of Solaris

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