Getting comfortable with conversations about race at work

New research from the CIPD and Omni finds a quarter of employers make no effort to attract and recruit more diverse candidates for top-level jobs. This despite a renewed push to balance boardrooms.

Diverse boardroom leaning in to conversation
In 2015, an independent government review headed by Sir John Parker challenged FTSE 100 companies to have at least one person of colour as a director. February 2020’s update report shows that just 52 listed companies have achieved this goal.The launch next month of the CBI-backed campaign, Change the Race Ratio, is already seeing founder companies Microsoft, Aviva and Deloitte being joined by 20 other companies. All are signing up to make commitments to increase diversity at senior level. This is critical as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement and to properly recognise and include everyone in the talent pool, as well as for competitive advantage (75% of FTSE 100 earnings are made overseas). Research shows boards that are more diverse outperform competitors.   

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Will the race at work targets be met?

The CBI Change the Race Ratio campaign mirrors the Parker Review targets of achieving at least one racial or ethnic minority board member by the end of 2021 for FTSE 100 companies and 2024 for in FTSE 250 listings. It also commits signatories to reporting their race pay gap by 2022 and publish plans on how they will achieve its targets.Both the Parker Review’s 2020 update and the CIPD’s Resource and Talent Planning Survey 2020 suggests employers could be making more progress towards these goals. Less than a quarter (23%) of the 660 surveyed by the CIPD say they go beyond basic legislative requirements on protected characteristics during recruitment and selection. For example, only:  
  • 37% monitor their recruitment to obtain data on protected characteristics 
  • 27% remove certain biographical details from initial selection process 
  • 33% ensure they have a diverse interview panel or hiring team 
  • 23% check recruitment tests used are valid, reliable and objective.
Commenting on the CIPD’s findings, Claire McCartney, the professional body for HR and people development’s Senior Resourcing and Inclusion Adviser, said: “It’s particularly disappointing to find that a quarter of organisations are not doing anything to improve boardroom diversity. Not only is this where the problem is most acute, as the Parker Review and other research shows, but achieving change here would have maximum impact.”

Being proactive about senior-level diversity and inclusion

Explaining further why improving race diversity in the boardroom is important, Claire McCartney continued: “We need to have a broad range of diverse people in decision-making roles and be role models for future talent. Improving diversity needs to be actively worked on.“We’d encourage all employers to add much more rigour, consistency and challenge into their recruitment and selection processes. With many companies understandably focusing on dealing with the economic fallout from the Covid pandemic, it’s important that improving diversity is a priority throughout and beyond the pandemic.” Employers taking up this challenge to progress diversity and inclusion were represented at the race inclusion stream of the 2020 This Is Us conference. “Having been in the events industry for nearly 25 years, I have never seen a person of a BAME representation in a senior leadership position," says Meena Chander, explaining the importance of the event."I have also always found barriers in the workplace compared to non-BAME colleagues. There was a glass ceiling and a reason as to why not to give me an opportunity as opposed to a reason why, even though I was highly skilled and well educated. This led me to setting up my own events business, Events Together, and the creation of the This Is Us conference as a place where these issues can be discussed, challenged and acknowledged.”The session on ‘Recruitment and Retention of C-Level Positions’ by Jo Heath, Partner and Head of Practice, Diversity & Inclusion Culture and Ethics at Green Park, highlighted the racial bias inherent in most organisations’ talent attraction, recruitment, retention and promotion processes.Seeking to promote greater fluency in conversations about race and ethnicity at work, Jo Heath spoke of the role of cultural intelligence (CQ). She also called for more leaders to become diversity allies and inclusion role models; those working to remove systemic barriers to progression and providing the vital support needed to diverse individuals to break down cultural leadership stereotypes.  “Working in a multicultural environment is about connecting better with difference,” said Jo Heath. It is also about being certain you have the best people for the job and challenging existing systems, processes and behaviours to really ensure you have the best diverse talent. “Ask yourself: are we recruiting and progressing based on a perceived cultural fit? Or are we really exploring who can be additive to our culture?”

Changing the conversations around race at work

One of the conclusions from Jo Heath’s session is that we all need to “become more racially fluent and get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations” about race. Black history, for example, should be spoken about regularly, rather than just during October’s Black History Month.There are also calls to move away from terminology like BAME and BME to focus instead on the experiences of people who are Black, Asian and minority ethnic on an individual level, rather than as a  homogenous group. This is also a key recommendation in the Chartered Management Institute’s (CMI) new report, Moving the Dial on Race – A Practical Guide on Workplace Inclusion, written by Pavita Cooper, Chair of CMI Race or Dr Jummy Okoya, a Senior Lecturer and Wellbeing Psychologist at the University of East London and CMI Race advisor. Among the CMI report’s Six Steps For Better Managers to Move the Dial is the call for managers to take time to learn how to talk about race and be anti-racist. Finding that only a third of managers had discussed Black Lives Matter with their colleagues, the CMI’s report recommends managers also: 
  • Support staff who face racism: schedule conversations with colleagues to understand their experiences and encourage true identities at work
  • Build support: create networks to encourage learning and sharing
  • End microaggressions at work: invest in training to end microaggressions and ensure staff are clear zero-tolerance racism policies
  • Re-examine recruitment and promotion processes: to ensure they are free from unconscious bias.

How can employers encourage greater inclusion and diversity during recruitment?

The CIPD’s report also offers guidance on how organisations can improve diversity during recruitment and selection:
  • Critically evaluate your organisation's brand to see how attractive it is to diverse candidates. What changes can be made to your brand and your culture to help attract, select, develop and retain more diverse employees? 
  • Develop programmes like career returners and mid-career change to help broaden talent pools and people’s skills 
  • Evaluate recruitment activities to assess those most effective at broadening talent pools 
  • Ask questions about what is critical to the role; people from different industries or backgrounds may have transferable skills and knowledge, and can bring fresh insight. 
Louise Shaw, Director Resourcing Transformation at Omni RMS, a recruitment process outsourcing service, which partnered the CIPD for the research, said, “The #BlackLivesMatter protests brought the racial inequalities within our societies and workplaces into sharp focus. We believe organisations must be held accountable for ensuring greater racial and, of course, broader diversity at the very top. 

“Recruiting diverse talent is only the start,” continues Louise Shaw. “Organisations need to be reporting externally on their true effectiveness by measuring inclusive engagement, retention and career development. This is what will give organisations full visibility of what is and isn’t working so they can make informed changes and realise the business benefits." 

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