Opinion

Why employers should take action on race equality at work

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In any given workplace, there’s a moment where a person can feel afraid to speak up. That moment of indecision is heightened for an employee who is Black, Asian, Mixed Race or of another ethnically diverse background. This can be challenging for allies too.


It can be a situation where a person questions whether to discuss an idea, raise an issue or to point out something to their colleagues. But if an employer creates an environment where people don’t feel safe or supported to express their views, then that’s not a safe workspace at all. And when only 66 per cent of Black employees feel they can be themselves at work, that’s a serious problem, and what’s more, it’s a safety issue that any organisation needs to tackle. 

Compounded with this is the fact that Black, Asian, Mixed Race and other ethnically diverse communities face microaggressions every day, including at work. It’s so easy for people to feel disliked, unappreciated or unwanted and it’s worse when a person doesn’t feel comfortable to speak up at work.

Sandra Kerr: "Workplaces face a problem of unsafe spaces, where Black, Asian Mixed Race and other ethnically diverse employees don’t feel comfortable being themselves at work."

Managers should be the reliable go-between between employees and senior management, but the fact is that managers aren’t perfect, and our Race at Work 2018 survey found that 28 per cent of black employees reported having witnessed or experienced racial harassment from managers, compared to only 13 per cent of white employees.

Ultimately the issue is that workplaces today face a problem of unsafe spaces, where Black, Asian Mixed Race and other ethnically diverse employees don’t feel comfortable being themselves at work. So how do we fix that?

It starts with changing behaviour   

What we want to see is employers change their attitudes, behaviours and practices at work, so that employees feel comfortable about speaking up, sharing their experiences, and calling out instances of racial inequality (when and if they happen) at work. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, or to admit you don’t have all the answers. Black, Asian, Mixed Race and other ethnically diverse colleagues need allies, and one way to do that is for managers and leaders to be open-minded.

First, educate your staff. Take the time to teach your managers to watch out for microaggressions and instances of non-inclusive behaviours at work, and to practice more open communication with their teams. It comes down to training your managers to be respectful and mindful of the pressures employees face at work, and to listen to their colleagues with an open and empathetic approach. Black, Asian, Mixed Race and other ethnically diverse women can easily feel overlooked and marginalised by their gender and ethnicity, and so it’s important for colleagues to respect this and be supportive. 

One great example of how this can be achieved is by Santander, who sponsored a rapid evidence review, What can employers do to foster inclusive culture?, which was prepared by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London for Business in the Community. The review conducted research into what works and what doesn’t for diversity training at businesses, and found that one-on-one training proved ineffective, but organising diversity training for groups that involves role playing and games works, and leads to more civility and understanding, and reduces stereotypes at work.  

Give credit where it is due at work: Photograph: iStock

Recognise the merit of your colleagues. Similarly, there is an underrepresentation of Black, Asian, Mixed Race and other ethnically diverse women in management and senior leadership roles in business. Team leaders and managers should take the time to recognise the expertise and merit of these women’s ideas at work and give credit where it is due.

Ensure your recruitment practices are fair. When advertising new vacancies, use language that is inclusive and respectful. Take the time to ensure that your company’s recruitment selection process is transparent and focused on inclusion. It’s a fact that 33 per cent of Black employees feel that their ethnicity will be a barrier to their next career move; in contrast to only one per cent of white employees sharing the same opinion. That’s an issue of recruitment that can be fixed.

Report your ethnicity pay gap data. Companies are making an effort to report their ethnicity pay gap information, and that’s a telling sign in itself. As more companies show transparency in how their colleagues are paid and how this stacks up against the diversity of their organisations, reporting your ethnicity pay gap data can help show your commitment to diversity and inclusion, and even if it’s not a pretty picture, it is a step towards transparency. Reporting will demonstrate to your employees that you care and are prioritising inclusion, and it can show where you need to reassess your pay structure for roles.

Sign up to the Race at Work Charter.

I encourage businesses to embrace inclusivity and sign up to Business in the Community’s Race at Work Charter. This is a public commitment to being
an inclusive employer, dedicated to supporting the equality of colleagues
at all levels within the organisation.

By following the recommendations in this charter, employers will take positive steps towards becoming more inclusive, and taking a stance on racism at work.

Ultimately it comes down to treating colleagues with the same level of respect you would want yourself, and that starts by open communication, actively listening to your colleagues, asking questions and being open about your lack of knowledge or awareness. Employers need to create a workplace where their colleagues feel safe to speak up without repercussions and introduce a culture of inclusion and respect. Racial inequality is a business problem, and together we can tackle it, one conversation at a time.

Sign the Race at Work Charter and access free BITC guidance and toolkits on achieving race equality at work at: bitc.org.uk/race

Sandra Kerr CBE is Race director at Business in the Community (BITC)

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