The global Black Lives Matter movement has shone a stark spotlight on the need for society and organisations to stop, reflect and acknowledge where they need to start making changes. While laws and changing social norms have helped to make overt and blatant racism unacceptable, a shake-up in working practice and systemic culture is required. And that will only happen if we all take ownership of the issue.
Join Nigel Cassidy and this months’ guests, John Amaechi OBE, Bernadette Thompson and Professor Binna Kandola OBE, to understand how organisations can move beyond token gestures and diversity tick box exercises. It’s time to erase racism from the workplace and the journey needs to start now.
Nigel Cassidy: The death of George Floyd at the hands of US police sparked global protests over systemic, persistent racism in society. So what’s to be done to stamp out racism and prejudice in our workplaces? I'm Nigel Cassidy and this is the CIPD podcast.
That shocking video of Mr Floyd’s last moments has raised deep concerns and the issues it’s brought to the surface are very close to home. The Black Lives Matter movement’s only underlined a desperate need for us to properly educate ourselves, to look beyond the all too familiar box-ticking exercises, to look deeper and start tackling the all too persistent bias in our workplaces. All the surveys show that it’s leaving people of colour underemployed and under-promoted. So what do we do next?
Well joining me on this month’s very timely CIPD podcast we’re delighted to be joined by the organisational psychologist, best-selling author John Amaechi. He leads whole teams of psychologists, behavioural scientists and business strategists helping clients deal with people challenges that get in the way of an organisation’s performance. And another entry in his CV he's also a former NBA player. Hi John.
John Amaechi: Hello.
NC: We’ve Bernadette Thompson. She's deputy director at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government here in the UK. She's held a wide range of roles supporting the government, notably involving senior diversity and inclusion roles. Hello to you.
Bernadette Thompson: Hi, hello.
NC: And we’ve Binna Kandola, also a diversity specialist he cofounded [sic] the book Racism at Work, the Danger of Indifference, and cofounded the business psychology firm Pearn Kandola. Hi Binna.
Binna Kandola: Hiya.
NC: Now John if I can start with you professionally I guess we pretend not to see race don't we, well probably privately too, we like to think that your procedures, our diversity and inclusion policies have taken bias out of the equation but clearly we’ve seen from events that isn't so.
JA: Yes I mean I think it’s one of the most dangerous things that we do, the concept of the colour blind society is so convenient it helps us to imagine that by simply ignoring something existed will somehow make its impact immaterial. And that to me is one of the big challenges because we’re not dealing with just the problem of people who are overtly biased, the people who are in this case overtly racist. If the challenge for us all was simply the men, and it is normally men, who run through the streets yelling the N word then we wouldn’t have a big problem to deal with because that is the kind of behaviour that a blunt instrument can deal with. The problem we have is well-meaning people who do not realise and are unwilling to embrace the wince and the discomfort of recognising that, something we’ve seen in the last few weeks the number of people who have said, ‘Oh it’s so difficult to talk to black people. It’s so difficult to talk about race,’ and they don't realise the implication of that is the fact that they have spent 30, 40, 50 years never, ever creating a relationship with even one black person that gives them access to their experience. That's what we’re trying to deal with, well-meaning people who have been underequipped and purposefully myopic about race.
NC: And all the while Bernadette Thompson laws and changing social norms have really helped to make kind of overt, blatant racism unacceptable in principle anyway. So how come we haven’t made progress? Why aren’t all the things we put in place working?
BT: So I think for me it’s about changes led by leaders, cultural changes occur across organisations and again it’s looking at the diversity of organisations. So what I've said is we’ve been able to make some progress, indeed much progress on the gender agenda because it comes to our leaders’ doors, it’s either going to relate to their mother, it’s going to relate to their sister, it’s going to relate to their daughter, so they get that. But when it comes to issues about race it doesn’t come to leaders’ doors in the UK. We are not diverse at the higher levels in most of our organisations. In the last couple of weeks I've been using the analogy of the Guinness glass, we’re black at the bottom and white on top. We definitely in order to make progress we need to have a latte across our organisations. So for me it’s about why we haven’t made this progress despite all the reports, despite all the inquiries, despite all the publications that we have out there is that it isn't something that keeps most of our leaders up at night. It doesn’t come near their doors. When we have diversity at the top I feel that urgency will be there and it just shows the failings in the systems of actually gripping this and dealing with this. It doesn’t come to people’s doors.
NC: Well you mention all those reports which have come out and after current events, certainly in the UK we’re going to have, Binna Kandola, yet another report, do you think that's going to make any difference to the pace of change, for example in the workplace?
BK: It’s not the reports it’s actually what you do with the actions and the recommendations in the reports. And the problem has been that the various investigations that have been carried out have made lots of recommendations and how many of those have actually been implemented. I mean that's the nub of it. And if people start taking action and we actually know what action we should be taking and another report is not necessarily going to make much difference it’s the motivation to do something.
NC: Well let’s just get a bit more of a handle on what we’re talking about here I mean the 2020 Parker Review showed 59% of FTSE 350 companies don't meet the target of having at least one director of colour on their boards, eight companies accounted for nearly 25% of the directors of colour but I guess this has a lot to do, Binna, with what happens lower down in organisations?
BK: It happens much lower down. We know, I mean the research shows actually that, just take graduates it takes longer for a minority graduate to get a job and once they’re in a job the pay gap between the minority graduates and their white peers actually widens as soon as 3½ years into employment. So it actually is an indication that career development opportunities are being given to others but not to minorities.
NC: So John we clearly have this unconscious bias people like to talk about, you’ve talked about well-meaning people not getting the point but can you talk us through a bit more how it happens and what the impact is on talented people of colour who are overlooked and unpromoted?
JA: Well I am, I suppose, famously spiky and controversial in that I don't think that unconscious bias is a thing. The unconscious is a thing, I get that, that's a psychological concept; bias is a thing, but what we’re talking about here is actual stuff that lives out in the real world. When I'm walking down the street and someone crosses the street when they see me the process in their mind may be invisible to me but the act of crossing the street is not unconscious, that is a part of a process. And in workplaces it’s even more so. When you look at the differential in work allocation for minority candidates versus non-minority candidates and when you look and you see a bench of people who is mostly women and minorities versus the people who are actively engaged in projects with senior people, and you see that it’s a homogenous white group that looks like the partner, that's not happened accidentally, that has happened because people like the familiar and the similar because they find it easier.
The process of the lack of inclusion in workplaces is a function of a choice for personal comfort over organisational performance, make no bones about it. This is not about niceness or being good to black people it’s really important. And I think in the workplaces the challenge we face right now that even as we are approaching this problem and none of the people on this panel are part of this problem but when we look at workplaces we still approach minorities and their progress from a deficit model perspective. The idea that you know what women need when they arrive in a business? Women need assertiveness training so that they can speak up in meetings. And then five years later they need de-assertiveness training so they don't frighten the other men in their business. And for black people the same problem. What do they need, what are they missing? Well perhaps we should stop armouring minorities with interventions and instead detoxify the environments that they are existing in. It is amazing to me that we’re still talking about inclusion and every initiative is targeted at the people who are the recipients of bias rather than the people who are the deliverers of it, even if that is through micro-aggressions and other sophisticated mechanisms.
NC: Okay well there is a lot to think about here. Bernadette Thompson what can we do practically, you’re of course responsible for many people’s working lives, talk me through situations that arise with people because of these background deficits in how we treat people, in what we understand?
BT: So it’s an employee experience and that is what wears people down, linked in absolutely to what John was saying about the deficit model. So as an employee if you are constantly being given some very shabby pieces of work compared to someone who you believe is on an equal footing, the same as that person, those micro-aggressions they’re really subtle and sometimes, you know you actually don't realise instantly that you’re being kind of side-lined. So if you have continually applied for positions, ten, 20, and I was speaking to someone today and they said, ‘Look I have been in this organisation for 35 years, I am tired, I can't do this anymore.’ And that is where the system grinds you down.
And it’s not that people from a BAME background are less intelligent, far from it, we are super-resilient, but there comes a time where you have tried and you have tried so hard that you either resign to the fact that you know what it’s not going to happen for me in this organisation and sadly what you find is a lot of BAME employees just leave to go somewhere else but sadly when they go to that somewhere else the culture’s pretty much the same. So it’s absolutely a vicious cycle. It is systemic, it is in the workforce and we can't deny it. And what really annoys me is that we are able to grapple some really difficult things. We were able to stand up the Nightingale Hospital just like that. This isn't difficult guys! Why haven’t we solved this problem?
NC: So Binna Kandola let’s take a step further and think about the rather complex work situations that people professionals find themselves having to sort out. I'm thinking of a particular situation I came across which was where a black colleague was promoted by top management to a role that they did actually find quite difficult and some of the performance targets weren’t being met. Now others in the organisation started getting resentful, thinking that they should have got the job and then outside campaigners took up the cause of the individual, there were accusations of racism starting to be made and then of course it all gets very complicated. And swirling about this and scenarios like it is that awful phrase that you hear that some people use, the race card.
BK: Yeah there's so much to untangle there, I’ll just take the bits and I’ll probably forget some bits of what you said but the first part about people in the organisation saying, they’ve got that job and it’s a kind of a tokenistic thing, that if you want to increase bias in organisations, in society, you increase competition. So there's scarce resource, so in this case a promotion, you give it to a minority, look what’s happening it’s reverse discrimination and they’re not getting the job on merit and it’s all I have been discriminated against.
In addition to that, going back to some of the points that Bernadette was making and John was also alluding to actually, is that one of the things we know about minorities in organisations is that they are more likely to be criticised and less likely to be praised. In fact some research has shown that they are more likely to be criticised and never be praised. Just imagine working in an environment where you’re getting no affirmation about the quality of work that you’re doing which starts sapping your confidence. So then you move into a role where everybody’s looking at you, everybody’s criticising you and then your confidence starts to sink and then you get no support. And it’s these kind of quiet words that you have, you know don't let it get you down, you'll be fine, you'll pull your way through it, you got this job because you’re the best person for the job, there’s no way that you can't do this role now. Those quiet words last a few seconds, a few seconds a week can make all the difference between somebody feeling good in the role and not feeling good in the role.
And the point about the race card is that's just such a great way of turning a situation around. So if somebody makes a complaint about racism in the organisation we think that racism no longer exists right, so that's the subtitle of my book The Danger of Indifference. So there's a belief that racism no longer exists. So you then make a complaint about racism, so you've now made a complaint about something that's not there, so you've now made it up and it must be in your head and so you’re playing the race card. And that phrase very quickly and very neatly the perpetrator becomes a victim, the victim becomes a perpetrator, like that. You’re playing the race card and all of a sudden the sympathy, whatever sympathy there may have been is now with the perpetrator.
NC: John Amaechi I can see you waving your arms I think you want to come in on this one. I'm particularly interested to know how you unravel complex situations like this in companies and how you actually try and get those who are involved to learn from the experience?
JA: I don't think it’s necessarily that complex. I think people fail to recognise that what we’re talking about here is a fundamental misunderstanding of what race is, we forget that it’s a social construct, not a biological or genetic construct, we’re not a different species as black people. And I think that's where you have to start. I mean I tell people I literally am more likely to be stopped and searched in the summertime than in the wintertime, and that is simply a product of the fact that I go a glorious dark mahogany in the sun and that means that I'm more likely to look like a threat apparently to people because I'm darker.
So in our workplaces it’s not really that complex, what Binna just described is just the ultimate reversal, the way to make somebody who’s making a legitimate claim look like they’re a perpetrator, what we have to do in workplaces is be honest about the status quo first.
One of the questions I ask companies is are you a meritocracy? And it’s really important to have this conversation when you’re talking about inclusion because if organisations believe they’re a meritocracy then they look exactly as they’re supposed to look. There is no point in arguing about that, if they’re a meritocracy the very best people are in the spot that they’re supposed to be right now. So if you have a board that is all men, if you have a senior leadership group that is all men and all white, that is exactly how it is supposed to look. We need to address that meritocracy idea because if we do that, until we do that everything that is tried in the case of inclusion becomes a case of tipping up the cart, it’s unfair, it’s positive discrimination. When you realise that we’re not in a meritocracy then what’s being done is about justice that that is harder to argue with even if you are a sophisticated bigot.
NC: Sure and it’s certainly a time Bernadette for self-reflection, I mean we’re all trying to learn from this and one thing I've taken from recent events is to maybe slightly rethink what I understand by the term ‘white privilege’, I mean this is not really just about having wealth, inherited or otherwise, or having an uncle that puts in a word for you, it’s about recognising some of these many reasons, we’ve heard some of them today, why people of colour hit barriers and don't get the breaks.
BT: Absolutely. So I think, you know I was watching the Channel 4 programme recently about the kids and racism.
NC: Oh The School That Tried To End Racism, I saw that, fascinating.
BT: Absolutely. It was a fascinating programme and just the expression on the children’s faces when they were about to take this race and then some certain questions were asked from all the children, and so a certain group of children by virtue of nothing they had done but just their lifestyle and how they had been fortunate to live their life were able to step forward. And you could see the children at the back that, ‘I haven’t done anything, I'm sure I could whoop with that person in a race but I have no chance because they’re already in front!’ And that's just explaining it.
And just going back to what John was saying about the deficit model and touching on what Binna was saying, so you come into an organisation, you identify with the organisation, you are proud that you’re there but the reality is meritocracy doesn’t exist. So then you say, ‘Okay let me see what I can do I’ll go on a development scheme.’ And then you get on the development scheme and then you finish that and, you know you apply for a few jobs, nothing happened, ‘Well let me try that talent scheme.’ And then you go on a talent scheme. Then you have a conversation with someone after an interview and they say, ‘Ooh you were nearly there but you know what maybe if you do this qualification,’ so you go and do this qualification. And then you end up, and a lot of our ethnic minorities within the workplace they’ve gone on every talent scheme under the sun, they’ve got the qualifications under the sun but what is missing and what we don't talk about a lot is the reality of the network. It is about the network, who knows you, who knows what you can do.
And so there’s something for me about our senior leaders who are non-BAME, widening their network and diversifying their networks. So if we ask the top table in so many organisations, how many BAME people do you actually know, do you actually hang out with, mention the top ten? You probably won't get many people able to mention.
NC: And Bernadette when you say BAME you are of course talking about black, Asian and minority ethnic people. John you want to come in on this.
JA: I think we should be able to say to mature leaders in organisations do you want to win? Do you want the very best brain, whatever the package that it comes in do you want the best brain or not? Are you willing to deal with some personal discomfort in order to have their brilliance? And I'm just never sure why in an environment like this, where the world can be turned upside down by a tiny string of protein why you wouldn’t want the very, very, very best people who could give you the prescience and insight and the smarts to win just at the sacrifice of a little bit of new insight.
NC: So if that's the case Binna Kandola is it appropriate to ask BAME colleagues to educate you, to tell you where you’re going wrong or is that your own job?
BK: It needs to be part of a conversation. So if you talk to your colleagues about questions you may have but there's lots of ways you can educate yourself and there's lots of ways we could have educated ourselves. I've had, and I'm sure Bernadette and John have had messages from people saying, ‘I have a question here can you answer this?’ and I have answered them, and I will and I do, I continue to answer them but I do end up saying, ‘You know there are resources out there they’re called books, you can pick one up and have a read,’ so rather than asking me the kind of sometimes quite basic questions, and these are people I've not met for a long time either, and to go back to John’s point actually is that I think I might be the only minority person they’ve met in the last five or six years and they ask these questions I go oh! And part of me doesn’t mind but part of me is something you could go to a bit more effort and ask a more sophisticated question based on something that you’ve read. So it’s a balance, so I'm happy to talk but put some effort in.
NC: Bernadette what’s your take on that?
BT: So I'm, oh my goodness I'm not as tolerant in this particular space, so as Binna was saying there's lots out there. There's lots out there for people to consider and I just feel that look if you want to learn about anything there are books, there are resources. There is something for me about the minority and there's enough stress as a minority why do I have to start explaining to you what it’s like to be a minority. So, you know I'm less sympathetic than Binna.
Over this last few weeks I have been inundated with requests and it sometimes makes you get quite grumpy, you know go and get resource, go and watch a film, there's so much out there, it’s not like in the 40s and in the 50s there is stuff, you know you're inundated with stuff out there. There are books, there are blogs. So I just think people if you want to make the effort have a read and then come to me from a place of, ‘I read this, can we have a discussion?’ I will be a lot more open to that than for you to kind of say, ‘Hi Bernadette, what do you think about this?’ I’ll probably give you a couple of books to read first.
BK: And just to add to that Nigel I think the other sense of frustration is I kind of feel like saying to people sometimes, ‘I did tell you, I did tell you a few years ago and you took no notice. I told you three months ago and you took no notice.’ So actually there's kind of a history to this as well, so people aren’t just saying, ‘I don't want to educate you,’ I think what you’re hearing is people saying, ‘You know what I tried and you weren’t bothered, what’s different now?’
NC: And I guess John’s going to give everybody short shrift if they ask him that same question?
JA: I have spent the last three weeks educating people who've just discovered there's racism. So this is part of my job and I do it so other people don't have to do it and that's important. There is actually a more sinister element to this when you think about this in terms of getting the best out of people inside a company. I talked to somebody in a company who’d been there for 18 years and he said, this is the first time a senior person has talked to him about his experience. There is something quite sinister about being able to be inside a company for 18 years and only when they need your insight for reputational protection do they come to you. Black people aren’t libraries and they aren’t librarians necessarily.
NC: Okay so let’s try and have a few practical suggestions then, how can we start to tool up managers, people managers, so that they can start stopping the behaviours that get in the way of this better performance and this inclusive work environment we all want to see? So who wants to start with that one, Bernadette?
BT: We have so many strategies within the UK it’s unbelievable. What we’re talking about isn't new, you know I was having a presentation the other day about some of this stuff and I actually lifted up all the action from 2016 and I was like, look guys if we do the 2016 ones we will really make progress, we know what to do. Within organisations we’ve got diversity strategies coming out of our ears, we’ve got race action plans coming out of our ears, what we need to do is pick three things, do those three things, go to the next, do those three and go to the next, and hold our leaders to account.
I remember a few years ago one of our permanent secretaries Dame Sue Owen said, ‘You know what, if we start linking this to performance-related pay of our most senior leaders some people might sit up and actually have a laser focus on some of this.’ So I just think we know what to do let’s hold our leaders to account. It might well be it’s tied to a couple of their bonus quota but we know what to do, this stuff isn't new, dust the strategy that you did in 2000 and start taking action and start holding leaders to account. That's my view.
NC: Binna we’ve just heard clearly from Bernadette that we should just do them but some people think that we have the diversity rules and initiatives and we are doing them.
BK: Well some of the things that we’re being asked to do aren’t very good either. I think when you introduced the session you talked about box ticking Nigel, and some of the boxes we’re being asked to tick are actually just totally irrelevant and some of them are very misguided, so I've seen it several times now in a number of organisation’s policies that we’re going to try and have diverse panels for interviews because it’s an easy thing to do and we get a diverse interview panel together and what the research shows is if you've got a diverse, untrained panel and a trained panel of white men the group that will make the fairest and best decisions are the trained panel and yet we’re jumping to this superficial kind of argument that if we get a diverse panel together it will be a silver bullet for it. It isn't it’s training but training takes longer and it’s kind of typical of the thinking we want something very quick without actually thinking. So some of the boxes we’re being asked to tick make no difference because they never would. And I think in terms of a CIPD podcast I think the HR profession itself needs to do a lot of self-reflection.
We did a survey two years ago, 1,500 people, 60% are black people, 42% of Asian people, said they'd experienced racism in the workplace, 20% of those experienced physical and verbal abuse. So like John was saying some of this was just horrible. The least effective action they could take was report it to HR. Less than about 20% of people said it was an effective action. 20% of people who took that action said it was effective. So actually it was the worst action anybody could take. So actually there is a degree of self-reflection about the HR profession itself and the way it responds to these issues.
NC: So John how could HR improve its performance here?
JA: It has to stop thinking that interventions are the solution. Individual behaviour and a codified expectation, a clear and codified expectation of behaviour of colleagues and leaders is the answer most of the time. So people who are even allies now they want to jump into an intervention, ooh can I get involved in reverse mentoring, it’s like these things exist because you aren’t doing the stuff that you do with white people with black people, that's why that exists. So how about just sponsor everybody who’s driven and ambitious?
It’s about individual behaviour, every single person needs to reflect on their winces, right, all the times they’ve made those mistakes with people who are different reflect on that and instead of, as those really accomplished people do, brushing it aside as an anomaly, hold it at our core and say, ‘I’m going to use this wince as a reason to never make this mistake again.’ And the second thing they can do is in every single circumstance where you've, ooh, your antenna goes up because you know someone’s done something that's just a little bit but you're afraid someone’s going to call you politically correct, forget that. That's the moment that you use your privilege and your power and your position whether it’s in HR or any other thing to say, ‘Actually no, that's not who we are, that's not how we behave,’ you address the minutia and that way you don't end up with ‘me too’, you don't end up with huge racist class action lawsuits, but nobody wants to address the minutia because you don't get likes for it, you don't get hugs for it, it’s just invisible hard work.
BK: But something you said earlier John I think needs to complement what you've just said and I agree with what you said but something you said right at the beginning of the discussion was actually there needs to be an acceptance that racism exists in society and it exists here in this organisation. So I think we shouldn’t forget the point that you started this discussion off with that there's that acceptance that it’s real and it’s here and it may not be in the grossest forms, a bit like Bernadette was saying that those micro-behaviours that you see in the workplace they have, I think Bernadette was saying about you’re not clear those behaviours it’s the sheer ambiguity of whether it happened or not which creates the stress.
NC: So Bernadette give us something to hold onto as we try and do better.
BT: I was just going to come to the point of the HR profession. So I am proud to be an HR professional however we need to look at ourselves first as a profession, what is the ethnic diversity of the average HR profession? Let’s start from there, what are we doing about that? So I think there's something for the HR profession, we are usually the gatekeepers of all this stuff. We are the people that go out to talk to the rest of the business but you know when I was little they’ll say well before you point all the rest of the other fingers point back at you, what are we doing as a profession to actually look at the people who are helping the organisations? Who are our leaders within the HR profession across the UK? What is the diversity like? What can we do within the HR profession? How can CIPD hold some of the organisations to account or in some way hold the mirror up to the profession to say, ‘Look guys if we’re going to fix this charity begins at home.’
NC: Fantastic point to end on. Worth pointing out there's just a bit of further reading before we go, race inclusion is a core area where the CIPD can help as we’ve heard, it’s got a raft of resources, recommendations for employers and government, look online for the CIPD anti-racism hub Tackling Racism In The Workplace. And I can do no better than quote a few headlines: build the business case for increasing diversity; identify levels of diversity with HR data and use them to explore barriers; review recruitment practices and career cliff edges and build an inclusive culture. There are a lot more to which I might add learn to recognise your own privilege and listen to the experiences of black and ethnic minority people, they really do matter.
On all our behalf let me just thank John Amaechi, Bernadette Thompson and Binna Kandola for a superb discussion, for lending their wisdom to this debate. Next time we cover the topic it would be nice to think we’ll be reporting on some real progress. From me Nigel Cassidy and all of us at the CIPD until next time it’s goodbye.
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