Interviews

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

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

“There have been times I’ve wanted to give up because of racism – and that racism came from HR people. I would hope our profession would be the North Star for inclusion, but I’ve felt like I had to work much harder than my counterparts. I’ve been in big organisations where I’ve met all my KPIs. Colleagues have asked why I was not being promoted when I was meeting higher metrics. But I just wanted to be Aggie; I didn’t want to think about race. 

“I’ve had HR professionals say as a black woman I should be proud of (and grateful for) where I have got to. When I have my afro, I’ve had people point to others who have a weave, saying: ‘Why don’t you do your hair like hers – it’s much more professional?’ All these little comments, microaggressions, make you question your own capability. You wonder if you say something, are you going to be accused of playing the race card? I now spend time coaching MDs and senior leaders, typically white males. I have found that, where initially I thought there was apathy around race, they are open, wanting to understand but not knowing how to navigate and ask the questions.”

    – Aggie Mutuma, group people director, Argent Foods (pictured left)


“I was always told that you don’t necessarily have to be able to perform every aspect of a job description when you apply. However, as a black woman you can’t apply for a role with the belief that you will be recruited based on your personality and supported to grow. This doesn’t happen. You need to hold all the right credentials or even more to be considered. It’s rare that our future potential is seen and that an organisation decides to develop us. Most black professionals need to have numerous qualifications and credentials to get their foot in the door, there’s no other pathway. 

“Organisations need to take a hard look at their workforce and practices, use data and make changes. Black and BAME employees should be encouraged to share their negative experiences, which should be listened to and acted on. Exit interviews should ask: what’s your experience working here as a BAME employee? What needs to change? These practices are not in place at any organisation and systemic racism means if a BAME employee does raise something, it’s often explained away or not taken seriously. This makes the working environment difficult for black employees.”

    – Claudine Charles, founder and director, Blended Learning Studio (pictured right)


“I haven’t faced a lot of workplace racism myself. But when I got into HR, I saw racism embedded in our processes and procedures and realised I had been living in a bubble. One time, going through applications, we had 60-80 candidates for each role and no applicant tracking system. So, the first filter was if we couldn’t pronounce their name, they would go on a different pile to come to later. We never came back to them. I was perpetuating racism but didn’t feel empowered enough to do anything. I worried I would be seen as playing the race card or being the stereotypical ‘angry black woman’. I wish one of my white colleagues had spoken up. Later, we started using certain universities as selection criteria, which also discriminates. I spoke up and asked why it was relevant. I started doing my own blind recruitment manually.

Researching systematic racism, where racism is embedded in processes within a system, a lightbulb went on. I thought: do I experience black privilege in this position? I wanted to make sure I was able to use that privilege. Now as a consultant, I use that to support other black people coming through.” 

    – Michelle Raymond, managing director, The People’s Partner


“I can’t think of a single organisation where I haven’t encountered racism. It doesn’t matter where you work, you will always find racist people. You have to be kind to them but it’s draining. It makes you feel terrible. But as a black person, it’s what you have to live with. One place, I was just grateful to be there. There were quite a few racist people but I had to stomach it: being singled out, being called a ‘black this or that’. It was in your face. I worked there for years but eventually I had enough and took them to an employment tribunal, where we settled. I then switched careers into HR because I wanted to understand employment law. 

People can be vocal and aggressive to you. But as a black person you need to show we are a calm people – that’s just the way it is. White people need to understand what it feels like to be black in a white person’s world. You need to be proactively anti-racist. You can’t become black, but you can listen, try to understand and say you will not tolerate racism.”  

    – Anonymous head of HR


“I’ve never experienced overt racism at work but it’s those microaggressions. Someone insisting I was the only other black woman at an event. Having my suggestions ignored only to have the same suggestion made by a white person accepted. Having a constant stream of microaggressions makes you question yourself: you think ‘was that actually racist?’. It can have a damaging effect.

It’s great that we are having the conversation and that’s where it needs to start, but we need to use that as a catalyst for action. It’s about culture change. All the D&I initiatives in the world won’t stick if we don’t change the culture. There’s a sense of urgency now and it’s heartening to see. We need to capitalise on that.”  

    – Movell Dash, diversity and inclusion specialist and founder, Modas Personal Development


“As a Black Muslim woman, I've faced multiple opportunities and challenges as I’ve progressed in my career. On occasions I’ve worked hard to complete a piece of work, only for it to be given to someone else to present to the senior team. My colleagues have noticed managers undermining me in meetings and sometimes stick up for me. It is tiring, but I'm resilient. When other people take credit for your work, they take away the opportunities you've earned. It can be hard to get recognised and sponsored for high-profile projects or promotions so you end up moving on to move up. I've felt like I needed to give 300 per cent.

People from ethnic minorities often bottle things up because it doesn’t feel safe to speak up. We worry about its negative impact on our careers. HR needs to review their policies and practices to ensure that they are creating inclusive and safe spaces for people. I've learnt to be savvy with overt and covert encounters in and out of work. I'm more self-aware, courageous and confident of my expertise and contributions at work and to my profession.”

    – Yetunde Oladipo, senior talent consultant, DWP 


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 pmeditorial@haymarket.com if you would like to share your experience or thoughts.

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Deputy Director of People, Culture & Transformation

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