Can we embed anti-racism to drive progress?
By Jo Faragher on 9 June 2023
It’s been more than three years since the brutal murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis – an act that was followed by thousands of companies declaring themselves as anti-racist allies, posting black squares on social media and big statements in their advertising. But after that initial flurry of support, little has changed for under-represented ethnicities at work. One in four still face racist jokes at work and more than 20,000 have quit their jobs because of racism, according to the TUC. “The state of play right now is one of broken promises,” says Toluwani Farinto, partner and ethnicity and social mobility lead at Utopia, a strategic change consultancy. “Many use the excuse that they do nothing because they don’t know what to do. But not knowing enough is not a good enough excuse.”
Abi Adamson, founder and DEI director of consultancy The Diversity Partnership, agrees that the past three years have produced a “tumbleweed of action”. Even worse, companies that rushed to recruit DEI leaders to build more equitable and inclusive workforces are now cutting down these investments, and pledges have not been met.
“Three years on and, despite small glimmers of change, many of those promises remain unfulfilled,” she says. “The truth is, outlining a commitment is the easy part. Very few opt for the uncomfortable introspection and hard graft needed day-in, day-out. It’s time organisations face up to reality Black lives are under threat every minute of every day. Baseless commitments will do nothing to change that.”
Utopia works with organisations to identify what opportunities they’re missing when it comes to tackling racism and discrimination and to build a strategic plan for change. If organisations have a roadmap they can work to, and embed anti-racism into day-to-day policies, then people at all levels can no longer use the excuse of not knowing what to do as it becomes part of business as usual. Farinto adds: “Colleagues become the key stakeholders and you’re accountable to them. Otherwise businesses suffer from ‘initiative-itis’, where they put forward well-intended solutions but the way they are deployed undermines their overall impact.” Furthermore, if employees can understand the ‘why’ behind different aspects of change, such as why they’re doing unconscious bias training or why there’s a push to hire more colleagues from ethnic minorities, they’re more likely to get on board. “Sharing statistics on inequality of outcome is a good start, such as how many people of colour were promoted in businesses in the last decade. Faced with the figures, it will be hard for them to argue that it’s because ‘they’re not good enough’,” he suggests.
Shereen Daniels, CEO and founder of HR Rewired, says it’s important that leaders communicate a sense of collective responsibility, regardless of whether people are personally impacted by racism. She says: “It’s critical to measure racial disparities and probe deeper, asking the tough questions about why some employees consistently have poorer experiences in comparison to others. This includes understanding which group of employees are most affected, how these disparities are reflected throughout the employee lifecycle, and examining the ways in which decision-making processes might intensify or mitigate these disparities. It’s also necessary to consider how the overrepresentation of white employees in positions of authority can be addressed.”
By doing this, organisations can work out where to start making changes and adapt their existing efforts. Integrating anti-racist principles into their policies and systems is an effective strategy for fostering a foundation of accountability that involves all employees, regardless of their position or racial identity,” she adds, with one important caveat. “Codifying anti-racism into policies and systems can only go so far. It’s essential to simultaneously cultivate transformative leadership behaviours that challenge the status quo. This is not a straightforward process and often requires re-evaluating power dynamics, questioning whose voices are regularly included and prioritised, and maintaining an environment where employees impacted most by systemic racism feel psychologically, and in some cases, physically safe.” On top of this, leaders need to demonstrate true commitment, capability and role-model worthy behaviour, rather than simply backing campaigns designed to present the organisation favourably.
Using data from both internal and external stakeholders can help unlock some of these challenges, argues Teresa Boughey, author of Closing the Gap: 5 Steps to Creating an Inclusive Culture. From this, businesses can create an inclusion performance report (IPR) so managers and other stakeholders can see easily where there is inequity in the organisation and can adapt their strategies accordingly. “Systemising EDI might also look like creating an IPR for the board, so that they have oversight over the changes occurring and assurance to ensure that the focus is being maintained,” she explains. “Or it could include an annual impact report which is made publicly available so that external stakeholders can understand the approach to ED&I taken by an organisation. The regular reporting of the D&I metrics enables all stakeholders to understand the roles that they play when it comes to creating an inclusion culture, and this approach means that the direction of travel is underpinned through the data held by an organisation.”
Taking a data-led approach means there is transparency and everyone can understand the role they play, she adds. But communication is key: “This needs to be supported with a clear inclusion communication strategy, so that everybody understands the direction of travel and therefore the role and contribution that they can play,” Boughey says. “In practice, this regular reporting may result in the creation of new policies, enforcement of existing policies and the creation of new operating practices as well as enhanced employee engagement.”
Stella Ngozi Mbubaegbu, director of the Black Leadership Group, argues that on top of policies and data, “we systemise anti-racism by making it part of an organisation’s fabric, threading racial equity into its values and behaviours and making it very much a core strategic goal”. This means embedding racial equity into professional development and leadership programmes, as well as recruitment, retention and progression. She adds: “Measurement is hugely important but this needs to be backed up by an uncompromising, activist approach that’s brave enough to scrutinise how your people work, to call out racism and deal with it. There has to be a zero-tolerance policy that’s very clear and communicated consistently.”
“The culture of an organisation is incredibly important because we can only systemise anti-racism if anti-racist values and behaviours are shared and lived every day. For this to happen, we must have the sort of strong, visible leadership that gives people the permission and confidence to speak out without fear. I’m talking here not only about those with lived and professional experience but those without, who want to have a better understanding and who want to be decent human beings. It’s about an open and honest conversation, and for this to happen it’s essential we create those opportunities and psychologically safe places to talk.” Employee networks can be useful for creating an informal setting for these conversations and sharing learning about what works and what hasn’t worked, away from the workplace, she advises.
“Continuously evaluating progress is paramount and holds more value than attempting to persuade or placate colleagues who might be reluctant or resistant,” adds Daniels from HR Rewired. For many, this will be uncomfortable work and, “ if it feels too easy, you probably aren’t going deep enough. ”But this discomfort should drive progress in the long term. “Systems and policies are the new frontier,” concludes Farinto from Utopia. “It’s about how you take existing policies and embed anti-racism so it’s no longer on the shoulders of individuals.”
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