HR & Management

Black History Month: How UK leaders are approaching corporate diversity

10 min read

18 October 2017

In the midst of Black History Month, we put our feelers out to see how leaders are approaching the subject of corporate diversity.

What do NASA, Google, the NHS and McKinsey have in common? It’s a question Aston University PhD student Andrew Marcinko brought to Real Business in the midst of conducting his own research. “All four spent millions analysing how varied teams affect business. The consensus? Corporate diversity has a massive potential to improve creativity and performance.”

This acknowledgement hasn’t stopped progress for black and minority ethnic (BME) employees from being slow, made all the more clear in reports released this October for Black History Month. The McGregor-Smith review found businesses weren’t reflecting the UK’s ethnically diverse nature, echoed by The Middle research, commissioned by the Black British Business Awards.

BME individuals represent ten per cent of entry-level positions, it claimed, a figure that drops to five per cent for leadership roles. And arguably, we have our own “unwillingness” to delve into the unknown to blame. Stakeholders made it clear in the report they wished to improve the situation, but were “hamstrung by the discomfort of discussing race in the workplace, fearing offence.”

This avoidance stifled, “if not prevented,” progress, according to the report: “It inhibits HR from challenging unfair practices relating to work allocation and questionable outcomes in recruitment and promotions discussions.” Unconscious bias, Marcinko added, also remained a difficult issue to address. But forcefully trying to rectify it could do more damage.

“Research shows we’re less likely to trust those we perceive as different than ourselves, and if that fundamental issue isn’t addressed on all levels then the following occurs. In many technology companies, such as Google or Apple, there exists a disconnect between talk and action,” he said.

“These companies have glowing web pages that preach about valuing diversity, yet are still nearly 80 per cent male in technology divisions – the BME numbers are far from flattering.”

Broader actions are needed by organisations to actually inflict change, he continued, starting with all talk being followed by the necessary action.

Wholly agreeing with Marcinko’s statement, Rebekah Wallis, director of people and corporate responsibility at Ricoh UK, believes mere warnings won’t raise BME individuals up the corporate ladder. The House of Lords documented in 2016 that the number of BME CEOs was falling – “and the amount of all-white boards increasing.”

“The inclusion of everyone should not be an afterthought, but a crucial part of any organisation’s talent management strategy,” she opined. It’s the type of approach Ricoh takes, with Wallis unveiling that people are a key driver to success.

“We see a focus on delivering and nurturing a corporate diversity as crucial to staying ahead of our customer needs. Increasingly, it will allow us to grow innovation, creativity and collaboration throughout the business.”

Of course, that has meant inclusion not purely being driven by HR. Instead, it needs to be embedded within the culture of the business, from the way leadership thinks to standard processes – a notion that has helped create a “common ethos that brings about wider change” for Ricoh.

Fostering support for BME individuals on a policy level and providing the necessary tools to make diversity happen are the other pillars it leans on.

These are just some of the ways to promote corporate diversity. In Fujitsu, for example, much emphasis is placed on employees collaborating with one another, as well as with customers and partners to foster cohesion.

Fujitsu, Penna and Business in the Community further highlight the numerous ways to inspire the next generation and create workplaces that are truly diverse

“Corporate diversity and inclusion is self-evident across all our levels,” Ravi Krishnamoorthi, senior VP and head of business consulting at Fujitsu EMEIAA, told Real Business. “It reflects our ethos of being a human-centric organisation, in which we pride ourselves on making things work for people. Without a real mix of employees, we would struggle to be successful.

“There are a number of ways in which we drive corporate diversity, from using workforce analytics to set meaningful targets, to rewriting job adverts in a more inclusive language which helps attract a wider pool of candidates. And to keep us moving forward and not stagnate, we’ve put in place a Responsible Business Board to ensure our business stays on track for our D&I goals.

“Another example of how we are addressing the issue is through the introduction of inclusion networks, such as the Shine, BME network, LGBT+ employee network, Culture Diversity network. With these we hope to enhance the capacity of staff to achieve their full potential and deliver what matters most.”

In the eyes of Julie Towers, MD and board director at Penna, employers should be inclined to conduct a diversity audit of some kind, making it clear once and for all whether more effort needs to be made. Just take a look at the BBC pay report debacle, where only ten out of 96 high earners were found to be non-white.

Only when you understand your current diversity rates, recruitment and development trends and successes and failures can you best create strategies that will work to promote those of BME origins.

“A change of perspective is also crucial. Research has found that many employers are limited in what they think the ideal candidate looks like and, as such, are missing out on a wider pool,” Towers said.

“At Penna, we’ve found that creating readily accessible information for all potential candidates is key to attracting individuals of all backgrounds. This is particularly important for your assessment techniques – they must give every individual an equal chance.”

Minal Backhouse, director at Backhouse Solicitors, on the other hand, explained policies should be put in place to eradicate distasteful behaviour at all levels which could be deterring black individuals from working at certain companies.

Some 37 per cent of BME workers experienced racial discrimination by their employer, Backhouse said, making it clear bosses should be held accountable for preventing inclusion. The same should apply to staff.

“Some 15 per cent have experienced verbal abuse and a further four per cent say they experienced assault or physical assault in the office in the last five years. Clearly this is a serious issue,” Backhouse stated.

“Employers should be clear they have a zero tolerance policy on racism. Employers should support staff who make complaints or raise concerns about racism and act quickly and appropriately to protect those staff.”

Even with corporate diversity measure put in place, training plays a vital role, especially if racist behaviour has been flagged up. As it stands, Sandra Kerr, race equality director at Business in the Community, exclaims that “sadly, Black History Month is needed now more than ever.”

“One in four primary and secondary school pupils come from a BME background, representing the future talent pipeline of the UK workforce. However, last month the Guardian reported that 36 out of the top 1,000 most powerful Brits came from such a background,” said Kerr.

“There is a need for role models, and Black History Month has a part to play in inspiring young people to aspire to reach the top of their chosen careers. We should be encouraging employees and bosses alike to share their stories, and we have seen great success with employers using two-way mentoring models to do this with BME employees.

“I recently watched the film Hidden Figures, about three black female mathematicians who were instrumental in sending the first NASA astronauts into space in the 1960s. It is an amazing story and inspirational even now.

“So this Black History Month, we should be asking if we have any hidden figures in the UK – not just in history but in business too – and how we can celebrate them and lift them up? Doing so will inspire the next generation and create workplaces that are truly diverse and inclusive.”