What's it like being black in HR? (part one)

16 Jul 2020 By PM Editorial

The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the concept of relative privilege – and so the specific bias black professionals face. People Management spoke to a number about their experiences

“Racism in the UK is subtle. For me the experience of systematic racism started in the education system, being pushed to pick racially stereotypical courses and roles and not being encouraged to follow my passion for politics. In my professional career I have continually been told and made to feel I wasn’t good enough to progress. I’ve been micromanaged, undermined and bullied in comparison to my peers of a different race. Some even intervened to ask why I was treated differently. I’ve had feedback from an interview that: ‘Your face wouldn’t fit in here.’ I started my own consultancy and contracting to give me control of my destiny. I now work in a way where I am no longer exposed to misguided perceptions of my capabilities due to my race.

In HR it’s our job to challenge, but when I do I’m told I’m aggressive and have an attitude problem (angry black woman syndrome). If a white woman has a meltdown, she’s just ‘having a hard time’. I cannot afford to have a ‘meltdown’ or a ‘bad day’. I used to think ‘is it me? Am I losing the plot?’ But when I’ve talked to other black professionals there is a systemic theme.”

    – Mercy Geker, director, On Target Solutions HR (pictured left)

“I’m mixed race but when people look at me, they see the black half and not the white half. I’m also disabled, so when I come up against obstacles, is it because I’m black, because I’m disabled, or a combination of both? I believe that the majority of organisational practices are designed through a white (and non-disabled) frame of reference. I’m in a senior enough position now to challenge, but earlier in my career I wanted to fit in and prioritised that over challenging things that were wrong. As a person of colour, that can be a difficult place to be as you don’t want to create waves and it’s often easier to say nothing. You shouldn’t have to change who you are to fit in; the system needs to flex to be inclusive rather than stripping people of their uniqueness. Organisations need to create the environment to facilitate difficult and candid conversations. A lot of perceived racism is born out of ignorance and curiosity; we need to kill the ignorance and satisfy the curiosity.”

    – David Johnston, head of equality, diversity and inclusion, Police Service of Northern Ireland (pictured right)

“Entering the world of work, no one prepared me for the challenges I would encounter related to racial bias. I have never had a direct line manager from an ethnic background and it’s the norm to be the only non-white person in meetings. I don’t feel my career has been nurtured compared with others who are non-black and have been offered opportunities to develop. 
“I progressed through asking questions, requesting development and moving on 
if that was the only way to achieve the next level. 

“I became more aware of these challenges the more senior I became, particularly in recruitment processes. I recall a five-stage interview process where I was the only candidate at stage five, which was meant to be a short meet and greet with the boss’s boss. I always recall how uncomfortable this person was when they met me. There was nothing I could put my finger on to explain the discomfort, with the exception of the obvious. I was determined not to be derailed, but I was not offered the opportunity. Bias creeps in in subtle ways only you and others like you can understand.

“Everyone needs to be active on anti-racism. Speak out when you know you are receiving a promotion that has not been advertised, when you get selected for development that you know would benefit your black co-worker, or when you get a pay rise and your black peer does not. Speak out when someone has tapped only your shoulder about project opportunities, when your network tells you about vacancies, or when leaders don’t hear minority voices.”

    – Anonymous senior HR professional 

“HR is quite an isolating role anyway because you can’t get that close to colleagues. And being a black woman in HR brings an additional challenge. In my last three companies, I have been the only black person, which has been hard. You look at a company photo and you’re the only person of colour. You want to be the person who can educate the people in charge, but where do you start? I can’t just march into the CEO’s office and say: ‘Why am I the only black person?’ There have been lots of companies jumping on the BLM bandwagon and putting out statements, but if you look at their diversity stats, it doesn’t stack up. We need to have honest conversations about why and it needs to start at the top.” 

    – Chloe Black, HR manager

“Back in 2006 I was working as a maths and science teacher and had a very challenging experience. I didn’t know about racism in the workplace until it hit me in the face. I got a new line manager and she was blatantly racist. I had never met anyone like her. She would never award overtime contracts to black members of staff and she fought to get me pulled off a leadership role. She started to excessively observe my lessons even though I had the highest pass rates in the department. I lodged a grievance but was told to drop it. Eventually it went to employment tribunal and I won.

The experience taught me that to change anything you need to change the whole system. Whistleblowing should be encouraged and there should be harsh penalties for those who try to intimidate whistleblowers. Sometimes good white people want to say something but don’t because of fear of repercussions. There should be an independent body that steps up to seriously challenge institutions about lack of black representation at senior level. And representation can’t be a token gesture of one person. There’s safety in numbers; it needs to be meaningful. And we need white people to speak up when they hear things.”

    – Seymour Mattis, executive director, VITAL EET and managing director of IPEROL (International Professional Education Recruitment Organisation Limited)

“I fell into studying HR through clearance at university but quickly caught the ‘people bug’. As I’ve progressed out of education and into the workplace, I’ve had a sense that people look at me and think: ‘What is a black guy doing working in HR?’ HR is a female-dominated and white profession, and I sometimes think people see me as a bit of a threat. They see your name on your CV or your picture on your profile and they don’t want to touch you. At recruitment fairs people ask: ‘Is this field right for you?’ I’ve had feedback after interviews that ‘we don’t like the look of you.’ Even after doing a Masters and getting years of experience, I sometimes think: ‘Do I belong?’ But I want to make a difference and I feel this is where I belong. I would like to see the CIPD doing more campaigns and raising awareness about black people as professionals – and including more black professionals as part of a more diverse talent pool to slowly but surely bridge the gap of inequality in the workplace and move towards fair opportunity in the appointment of roles. We have the knowledge and the skills to make a really valuable difference to the profession.”

    – Shola Ope, senior HR officer, education sector 


People Management would like this to be just the start of the conversation on the lived experiences of black – and all ethnic minority – professionals in today’s workplace, and what must change. Please email if you would like to share your experience or thoughts.

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