Let's talk about race: a D&I roundtable from Investigo and VERCIDA
With recent events bringing the issue of race into sharper focus than ever, Investigo held its latest diversity and inclusion event in August, in partnership with inclusion and leadership experts VERCIDA Consulting. Hosted by Peter Hall from VERCIDA, the event discussed race-related issues such as language, the concept of privilege, the Black Lives Matter movement and how to ensure an inclusive workplace culture.
The meritocracy myth
Peter believes there’s a “meritocracy myth that the best people get the best jobs.” Indeed, a VERCIDA study has found that only 8.8% of ethnic minorities in the UK work as managers, directors and senior officials – 5.7% of black people and 7.2% of mixed ethnicity – compared with 10.7% of white people. Over half of ethnic minority employees (52%) believe they will have to leave their current organisation to progress their career, in contrast with 38% of white employees. 43% of ethnic minority employees have been overlooked for a work promotion in a way that felt unfair in the last five years, compared to 18% of white people.
He added, “Companies spend all that money attracting talent, investing in that talent, providing training, yet just over half feel they have to leave to progress. It’s one thing to focus on attraction, but it’s crucial to think about retention, as a minimum to recoup that investment. Post-pandemic, organisations who have invested in all their people will be the ones who prosper. Those who just invest in stars will miss out.” As part of this, Peter believes that productive relationships and engagement between employees and managers, and transparency on promotion prospects, are absolutely crucial.
A book by its cover
It’s a sad fact that in every walk of life, great credence is placed on perceptions, whether consciously or otherwise. These are deep-seated societal constructions which often manifest in negative reactions to appearances. For example, there are still schools and even organisations where dreadlocks are unacceptable. While the TV and media industries tend to be more relaxed, sectors which are traditionally more corporate, such as finance, can be stricter in their dress codes.
There seems to be an acceptance in certain environments that any new hires must in some way mirror the existing employees. Of course, the ability for a new hire to mesh with their colleagues, to understand the company culture and its requirements, are absolutely crucial. But the notion of someone “not fitting in” can serve as an accelerator to discriminatory practices, an excuse to continue hiring similar people. Even if hiring is performed with the best intentions, this can still prove a barrier to diversity. 53% of people from an ethnic minority background believe they have been treated differently because of their hair, clothes or appearance, compared with 29% of white people.
The significance of perceptions also extends to behaviour. Some black people find it necessary to curb their personalities – not to be overly loud or animated, for example – so as not to be perceived as threatening. This is in direct contrast to the LGBTQ movement, where there’s a very strong emphasis on being yourself. “This applies equally to race,” said Peter. “People mask their characters and who they are. They put a corporate mask on when they come through the doors, play to a certain image, a certain stereotype that’s acceptable. If you can’t be your true, authentic self, you’re constantly thinking about how you’re coming across, what you need to do to fit in.”
The three types of racism
Overt racism – Resulting from conscious racial stereotypes, manifesting in name-calling, avoidance, violence, direct discrimination and refusing to hire, more prevalent in the ‘70s and ‘80s but sadly still existing today.
Covert race bias – Resulting from unconscious patterns of thinking that lead to quick judgements and race-based ‘mind bugs.’ Examples include hiring, who we listen to, who we socialise with, who we sponsor and provide work opportunities to, and performance scores. Based on who we associate with, “the brain wires and fires across information,” said Peter, and different notions can result.
London was suggested to be one of the few places in the UK that is almost completely integrated. This contrasts hugely with certain towns where there are divided communities living alongside each other, “but they never cross over the tracks or integrate. They don’t experience new things, which can lead to biased thinking. In the workplace, you sponsor who you’re comfortable with, who you have an affinity with. This leads to promotion, work opportunities, performance scores. Bias can creep into processes, particularly when you put a conscious process in place to mitigate that.” People can be hired based on perception, on the brain’s immediate reaction to their name and its associations.
Institutional racism (systemic) – “The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.” Sir William Macpherson, 1999.
Lewis Dunn, Principal Consultant in Investigo’s SAP team, referred to footballer Raheem Sterling’s observation that the media sometimes drives the narrative on race. A white player will be seen buying a house, while a black player will be pictured “splashing the cash.” There’s also a perception that black players are more often described in terms of their physical attributes – as being strong, powerful etc. – while white players are more likely to be described as clever or intelligent. Peter added, “They’re given a different weighting, a perception purely based on the colour of the player.”
“There’s a generational piece at play,” said Angharad Kenward, Senior Director. “I grew up in a small, non-diverse town where the perception was that the only people of a different ethnicity were driving taxis etc.” When people have grown up in a closed environment where they’ve had little to no contact with people of other ethnicities, it’s important to educate, to expand horizons.
“I’ve been heartened by younger white people coming out en masse rather than just black people,” said Peter, referring to the recent protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. “We want things to change, we need things to change.” He added, “The one key difference between younger and older generations is that younger people want to see diversity as they’ve grown up with it. The older generations are more nuanced in their feelings around diversity, feeling less comfortable.”
Being subject to perceptions about your spending power and entitlement, or being followed around a store and having to hold things in view so people don’t think you’re stealing them – these all have a cumulatively crushing effect on a person. “It’s an acid rain constantly eating away at that person’s confidence, how they’re being perceived,” said Peter. “How can they be taken seriously, be heard in an organisation? An organisation can be diverse, but is it inclusive? Together, it can have a wearing impact.”
In the workplace, racism can have a number of serious negative impacts. In the short term, it can affect team connectivity, psychological safety, employee engagement and performance. In the long term, it can result in a culture of mistrust, individual mental trauma, collective withdrawal and stress and sickness.
Sceptics of the Black Lives Matter campaign will often point to the wider truism of all lives mattering. However, this misinterpretation can be a damaging one. The campaign exists because of “one group having a negative experience compared to all the other groups,” said Peter. “It’s the need to give a focus on addressing this inequality. Once we address the differential impact on this group, we can move back to this notion of all lives mattering. Of course they do. But that doesn’t represent the experience of this particular group in race inclusion. To pretend you don’t see it is sometimes worse.”
Another term that can cause debate is “white privilege” – the notion that people of a white background possess inherent advantages on the basis of their race, in a society characterised by racial inequality and injustice. Peter stressed the importance of focusing on education. “Privilege is about awareness, not about guilt. Once you become aware, it’s what you do about it. How can I learn more, what can I do, how can I become an ally? Identify talent, expand social networks. Once you become aware, it’s the start of a journey. Black people might say it’s not about me educating you, but about you educating yourself. It’s not about a guilt trip. It’s not your fault, it’s historical. It’s what we do to change that going forward.”
Creating a race-inclusive workplace
Challenge overt racism: not being a bystander
Acknowledge racism exists
Encourage open conversations in your own teams
Build your understanding by learning more about race and ethnicity
Call it out
Manage unconscious race bias: calling out assumptions and stereotypes
Take the Harvard Implicit Association Test
Look out for micro-inequities in every situation
Ensure colleagues are given an equal voice
Review bias in work decisions
Become a sponsor
Double-check your decisions with a colleague to avoid ‘gut feelings’
Address systemic racism: questioning everyday norms and ways of working
Look for patterns in decision-making on recruitment, work allocation, performance reviews
Review your team’s engagement scores
Talk to your clients about race
Review your professional network to see how you can diversify it
Complex issues have complex solutions. Correcting engrained ways of thinking and entrenched corporate practices takes time, conversation and, above all, education. That’s why honest, positive and challenging conversations like these are absolutely necessary. Thank you to everyone who attended and to Peter for a fascinating discussion. If you’d like to talk to us about devising and cultivating an inclusive workplace culture for your business, please contact us.