CIPD research published just before Christmas examines the enablers and blockers to black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) employee career progression in the UK to inform where action needs to be focused.

The significant lack of racial diversity at the top of organisations is obvious. We need the pace of change to increase to benefit from a wider range of perspectives throughout organisations, representative of our geography and customer base. But we need change to be sustainable, which means ensuring progression opportunities are fairer, transparent and based on merit.

Recent research by Green Park of the ethno-cultural diversity of the FTSE 100 found that we have not yet seen improvement at board level. We have the same number of non-white CEOs as in 2015 (a very low 4%). Just 2% of FTSE100 CFOs are non-White. And we’ve seen a decline in the number of minority Executive Directors.

High profile work, by both Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith and Sir John Parker, has set the stimulus for action on racial diversity and we believe the HR profession has a central role in making change happen, being ideally placed to challenge and address people management practice at all stages of the employee lifecycle to ensure it is built on the fundamental principles of trust, equality, fairness and inclusion.

We recognise that employers may be uncertain about where to start, especially smaller organisations without a HR professional to provide insight and guidance. This isn’t an excuse to not do anything or to shy away from conversations about race – instead it’s a signal to industry bodies, including us at the CIPD, to be providing additional insight, support and guidance for employers and sharing learning from organisations who are already on the front foot.

Our new research aims to add further insight into what’s actually happening in organisations to ascertain where action needs to be focused. As well as reviewing major research and policy papers over the past five years, we surveyed over 1,200 UK employees (700 BAME; 590 white British) asking what’s enabling and blocking their own career progression. The incongruences in responses, both within and between groups, help us understand more about what organisations need to do to address racial inequalities at work.

Where are the main blockers to equality of progression opportunities?

Significantly more BAME employees said career progression is an important part of their working life than those from a white British background (25% vs 10%). However, BAME employees are more likely than white British to say their career progression to date has failed to meet their expectations.

Furthermore, BAME employees are significantly more likely to say your identity or background can have an effect on the opportunities you’re given than white British employees, particularly those from an Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi background.

One in five BAME employees (20%) said that discrimination had played a part in a lack of career progression to date, compared with just 11% white British employees. Discrimination is totally unacceptable - everyone has the right to bring their whole selves to work without fear of prejudice or victimisation and employers have a duty to provide a workplace that delivers that.

And our survey shows that we need to be addressing organisation cultures. Just three-fifths of both BAME and white British employees feel their organisation has an inclusive culture. BAME employees are significantly more likely than their white British counterparts to say they need to change aspects of their behaviour to fit in, particularly those from an Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi background. 

Finally, across all ethnic groups, our survey found that a low level of line manager support for career development is an issue.

What makes a difference?

When asked what would improve their career progression, BAME employees were much more likely than white British employees to say that seeing other people like them that have progressed in the organisation, and a greater diversity of people at senior levels in their organisation, would help boost their career progression. 

In addition, a quarter of BAME respondents for whom mentoring is not currently available said it would be beneficial to them in their career, significantly higher than the proportion of white British employees who said this.

So what can be done?

Recommendations for employers

  1. Understand what is happening in your organisation: 

    An evidence-based approach to identifying the structural and cultural barriers which are maintaining workplace inequalities is the first step, as issues and appropriate solutions will differ between organisations. Be aware that the term BAME encompasses people from a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and traditions and avoid sweeping generalisations.
  2. Be aware of intersectionality and examine progression barriers through multiple lenses:

    Intersectionality refers to the fact we have multiple identities and they overlap. We need to be aware of the potential interplay of overlapping identities. For example, does being a woman from an ethnic minority background mean you have more equal opportunities through progress on gender, but are still at a disadvantage at work due to being from a minority ethnic group? In short, we still don’t understand enough about intersectionality and this is clearly an area where more research is needed to inform practice. 
  3. Critically appraise your organisation culture:

    HR policies and processes that promote diversity and inclusion can set expectation. However, policies alone won’t bring about change. They need to be brought alive by the behaviour of everyone in the business. Raising awareness of different cultures, background and circumstance can help people understand and appreciate difference. And having role models from a range of different backgrounds, and at different levels in the organisation, signals that diversity is valued.
  4. Actively encourage employee voice to inform change:

    It’s essential that disadvantaged and disconnected groups have access to mechanisms through which they can express their voice. Employee resource groups (ERGs) can be a useful mechanism for employee voice and through working closely with them HR can ensure the people management approach is as inclusive as possible.
  5. Address unconscious bias:

    It goes without saying that we need to continue to tackle overt discrimination head-on. In addition, unconscious bias is one of the main barriers to equality of opportunity that needs to be addressed.

Recommendations for policy makers

  1. Provide practical support for race pay gap reporting:

    We welcome Baroness McGregor-Smith’s recommendation for organisations to be publishing workforce data broken down by race and pay band. The transparency achieved through data reporting will help focus attention and should drive action. Government has a key role in challenging any misconceptions that the pay gaps are entirely out of employers’ control and urging and supporting business to make evidence-based decisions and shun quick fixes that will only paper over the cracks. Finally, we need lessons from gender pay gap reporting to inform the approach to both race and disability pay gap reporting.
  2. Develop guidance for employer action:

    There is a clear need for practical guidance and case study examples to kick-start and maintain employer-led action. Employers may be uncertain about where to start, especially those without a HR professional to provide support and guidance. As a nation we talk openly about gender, but we’re often still reluctant to talk about race and fear of doing the wrong thing may be holding some employers back from doing anything.
  3. Advocate and support better quality people management practice:

    Our research found that people management practice is poor across the board according to all ethnicities. There needs to be a much greater public policy focus on increasing the quality of people management capability and encouraging businesses to invest more in the skills of their people in a forward-thinking industrial strategy that helps create more inclusive workplaces, enhance job quality and boost productivity. Government can play a much stronger role to play in nudging and supporting employers to improve their people management capability at a national, sector and local level.

About the author

Jill Miller, Senior Policy Adviser, Diversity and Inclusion

Jill is Senior Policy Adviser for Diversity and Inclusion at the CIPD. Her work focuses on the areas of gender, age and neurodiversity and she has recently led work on race inclusion, managing drug and alcohol misuse at work, and supporting employees through fertility treatment, pregnancy loss and still birth. Earlier in her career, Jill specialised in small business growth through good people management and employee wellbeing.

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