In the last few weeks we have witnessed many organisations and institutions responding to the Black Lives Matter movement by posting black squares on the their social media platforms and issuing lengthy anti racism statements. But is this just a performative exercise?  What are they really doing to combat discrimination within their own organisations and exactly how are inequalities in the workplace going to be tackled? To have honest and meaningful insight, which will lead to action,  organisations need to look at their structures and practices and address the difficult and uncomfortable questions.

Of course this is not just an issue for employers.  It cuts across the whole of society, not just employment and career opportunities but also injustice and biases in education, housing & the justice system, all of which affect an individual’s life outcomes.  There are also stereotypes of BAME (Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic),  leading for example to young black men being ten times more likely to be stopped by the police.  So we have to find out if racial profiling based on bias and stereotyping happens in the workplace too.

Let’s begin with the recruitment process – is there any unconscious, or for that matter conscious bias, when sifting through CVs – for example bias against candidates based on their ‘foreign’ names, the school/university they attended, area where they live, the type of previous work experience or if they are able to demonstrate specific types of extra curricular activities.  Would it help if all CV’s were submitted blind, with all of that information omitted?  Does the use of artificial intelligence help or hinder the selection process of minority candidates, when looking for key words in CVs.  Indeed who is responsible for programming of AI platforms?

Who is charge of the recruitment and selection process in an organisation? Are those responsible for hiring and particularly promotion within the organisation, simply doing so replicating their own image - demonstrating hierarchical nepotism, pandering to the stereotypes and assuming that BAME candidates are not up to the job or lack the experience (without of course thinking about why they might lack experience)?   Organisations that still have unpaid or expenses-only internships exclude a large amount of candidates, particularly those from working class & minority backgrounds who usually are unable to take up these placements for financial reasons.

Once recruited within the organisation, is there a visible presence of minorities and at what level?  Why are there so pitifully few BAME CEO’s, board members and those in the higher echelons of management? Why has this number barely moved in the past few years?  Many BAME employees feel they go above and beyond to prove their worth with no recognition of their talent, and just hit an invisible ceiling. According to the latest figures, only 11 of the Big Four accounting firms’ 3000 partners are Black.  Deloitte has just one Black equity partner, EY & KPMG have two each and PwC has six.  Mandatory ethnic pay monitoring may go some way to highlighting these discrepancies.

Are there mentoring schemes to help address this imbalance? What are the other internal structural and institutional barriers to fair representation at all levels?

How do organisations investigate retention issues among BAME staff?  What are the mechanisms for employee voice within the organisation, particularly for those from minority backgrounds?  Do they feel comfortable speaking up or are they afraid to express their concerns, fearing that there will be repercussions, harming their career aspirations by being labelled a trouble maker or “playing the race card”?  Are these concerns simply dismissed? 

Feeling helpless at not being able to change the culture and not being listened to, denied meaningful participation and with no career advancement, many just leave the organisation, leaving those issues to continue, with the organisation probably not even realising they have a problem unless they carry out proper exit interviews.  As a result the organisation ultimately loses experienced and talented employees.

Those who decide to stay may suffer from Imposter syndrome, especially those who may achieve higher positions.  Not receiving any support, or acknowledgment for their achievements, many  begin to doubt themselves,  believing they don’t deserve to be in the position, or that they are  not as intelligent as their peers; perhaps they are just there because of tokenism. Sometimes this feeling is enforced by colleagues.  If they do make a mistake they sense they might also face more severe consequences than others, enhancing those feelings. 

And just consider, if you are the only BAME employee in the organisation, you may fear that you are in effect representing all Black/BAME people, in a spotlight and under scrutiny unlike other colleagues.  Anything that might reflect badly on you could affect the future recruitment of other BAME employees.

We may need to consider whether many the catch all BAME label may be problematic in itself. How useful is it?  Within the Black label, do people from African and West Indian backgrounds have different experiences?  The same can be asked of people Asian heritage, are there different outcomes for those from India and Bangladesh.  And exactly who is included – does it for example encompass traveller and gypsy communities?

Everyone is an individual, and this term can skew figures when looking at representation within the organisation.  An organisation could quote having 20 per cent BAME employees, but on closer scrutiny there may only be 1 per cent Black or 3 per cent Asian partners in a senior position with the remaining 16 per cent in lower grades. 

If organisations simply cash in on the current narrative for PR purposes, without elevating their own talent or having structures within the organisation to do so, it will be a token gesture, and could backfire with accusations of preferential treatment.

And what will happen once BLM has moved on from the current headlines?  After all discrimination and injustice has been with us for decades; there have been countless reports and enquiries all with very similar conclusions but hardly any of the recommendations have been implemented.

Nevertheless, there are grounds for believing that this is the opportunity for real change.

All organisations have had to adapt and change in response to the Covid 19 pandemic, and in order to survive have adopted new ways of working in a short amount of time, showing that if there is a willingness from all levels of the organisation particularly the top, serious change can be achieved. This is a chance to look at current structures, including diversity and inclusion, ultimately becoming more representative and resilient in all areas.  As we move to an ever more global economy it must make sense to for organisations to be representative of all in our society.

Looking ahead, we will be facing a severe economic crisis with potential mass unemployment and a very difficult job market.  Will organisations just carry on as normal with diversity & inclusion relegated to the back burner, or will it become an integral part of real and lasting change that benefits not just employee, but also the bottom line, ensuring the success and growth of the organisation into the future.

Lorraine Modeste is IPA Office Manager