Racism is the background hum of life for one who identifies as a ‘minority within a majority. I say this not to condemn individuals, but as a reminder that across our society, people of colour are still not treated as equals. Recent global crises have reorganised our priorities and brought to question the meaning of humanity. Images of trucks of COVID-19 casualties captured in Brooklyn, New York City in the Spring 2020, was not a scene I expected to see in my own back yard. Unquestionably, the COVID-19 pandemic will remain in our memories as a point of no return.
A call with my grandmother who lives in Harare, Zimbabwe, reminded me that nature is a humbling force, an equaliser that must be respected. I recall her saying she never imagined there would be a day when aeroplanes would be grounded the world over. The pandemic has disproportionately taken the lives of ethnic minority individuals and the growing gulf-between the well-to-do and the poor will continue to cause social unrest. But COVID-19 was not the first – nor the only – crisis which revealed the scale of inequality between the haves and the have nots, the wealthy and the poor. The murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 was a catalyst for social change in the discourse of racial equality and sparked the revival of the #BlackLivesMatter movement across the globe. In Bristol UK, protestors tore down a statue of a slave trader; its very presence reminding us of society’s complicity. Last year, the spotlight shone on those who have been forced to bear the scars of racism and exposed further alarming statistics of inequalities across our public services and private institutions. Society has re-evaluated and this time, there is no going back.
The provocative narratives of the past year carry tremendous momentum, which can be converted into meaningful change for minority ethnic groups in the workplace. The deeper question here is: can the current and subsequent generations improve on the gains of their forebears? My years with the Black British Business Awards have shown me that the battle we see ‘out there’ is mirrored ‘in here’ in our organisations. We see it in slower promotion and progression rates, lower inclusion and belonging scores and under-representation of ethnic minority individuals at senior leadership levels. The data provides ample proof, indeed an annual report on boardroom diversity by Green Park, shows that the number of black leaders at FTSE 100 firms has stalled since it was first reported in 2014 and has now dropped to zero, meaning there are currently no black executives in any of the top three roles at Britain’s 100 biggest companies. It is highly unlikely that the FTSE 100 will meet the Government-backed target of bringing an end to all-white boards by the end of this year. As Trevor Phillips, the Chair of Green Park and the former Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission said in his analysis of the diversity report: “The snowy peaks of British business remain stubbornly white.”
Despite glacial progress, society is reassessing its view of people and institutions who have done terrible things and the latest generation of talent that businesses are recruiting into their firms today, have no tolerance for intolerance. Companies who published anemic, unsatisfactory or no response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement suffered public backlash, largely driven by the collective force of consumer sentiment via digital channels. The same people who took to the streets to protest an unquestionable wrongdoing, are those who are holding their businesses to account. This shift has led to culture and values featuring more than ever in discussions, with highly sought-after candidates during the recruitment process. The convergence of public and private investor interest has caused a paradigm shift that will force corporations – particularly boards and regulators – to redefine what good practice looks like and set expectations for accountability. We cannot put all our faith on this glimmer of change. Giant problems can only be addressed by an assembly of giants ready to lead with courage and conviction. If business leaders are serious about change, they will need to set clear measures to achieve and ensure regular public reporting; commit themselves to understanding, teaching and practicing anti-racism and remove the burden of responsibility of the race agenda from already marginalised employees.
There is a fundamental need for investment to create relationships of trust between minority communities and the majority middle manager population. The approach must be harmonised if we are to bring both populations together in a healthy way. If businesses can create an inclusive culture, actively promote and encourage ethnic minority employees into middle management and deliver and nurture communication around the highly-emotive subject of race, the compounded impact and dividends of our work will naturally flow to create conditions of success for organisations. The rewards are vast; targeted action to address mid-level ethnic minority advancement can release a significant burst of talent and energy into the UK economy and increased diversity offers a boost to team effectiveness and innovation. But above all, optimising the talent and opportunities of ethnic minority groups, as with all historically and systemically disadvantaged groups, is the right thing to do.
As we approach the annual general meeting season, we will see whether investors will drive the race agenda with the same urgency and sincerity which was brought to the challenge of advancing women in the workplace – a diversity strand which frequently edges out the issue of race – and is perceived to be more complex. Often, these agendas are perceived as competitors for limited time and resources, potentially by human resources (HR) teams looking to present positive results to leadership rather than expose areas for improvement. Achieving sustainable and measurable change requires commitment and active participation from those with the power and privilege. It requires the awareness and determination to recognise, challenge and change behaviours and practices, which hold us back from equity and inclusion. Most of all, it’s an agenda that HR teams are expected to be an important part of.
What we have experienced over the past year is a critical turning point, one which has taken tragedy to be fully comprehended. The lessons we learn and the steps we take now are critical to ensuring a future where equal opportunity becomes reality. But how will we know that we have entered a new generation of business ethics? Here are a few of my thoughts: When the board recognises racial inequity as a systemic risk and manages it accordingly, with consequences for those who fall short. When the balance scorecard includes; clear metrics which the company regularly reports on, concerning racial representation, pay equity and advancement of ethnic minorities. When we do not need guardrails to ensure that the right thing is being done in our organisations to create the conditions for success for all talented individuals. When all races are proportionately represented throughout the talent pipeline. When the appointment of a black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company as CEO, is not something that happens once a generation. When the captains of industry stop hiding behind statements of intention and start urgently implementing game-changing measures, with clear goals and aggressive timelines. When incentives and discretionary awards are tied to conduct and behaviour and achieving a balanced team and when HR Directors are brave enough to begin to tear up the rule book and dismantle the fossilised structures that have produced differentiated outcomes for visible minorities. Companies which are truly able to shift the dial in a meaningful way for ethnic minority groups in the workplace will be those who embody human values, driven by leaders who demonstrate empathy, accessibility and transparency – even when it is difficult – and who are accepting and open of the fact that they do not have all the answers. Every individual in the workforce must be woken up to the pervasiveness of racism within every area of life, not just beyond the four walls of a company.