How business failed on race

Women are slowly finding a place at the boardroom table but the talents of BAME staff, particularly those of African and African-Caribbean heritage, are still being overlooked.

by Lloyd Bradley
Last Updated: 15 Apr 2020
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Food for thought

How many black board directors does your business have? For nearly half of the companies in the FTSE 100, the answer to that question is a succinct none. In fact, those 47 businesses have no BAME board representation whatsoever.

At this critical time in the history of UK plc, the only black British person at the helm of a FTSE 100 business is John Lewis’s chair Dame Sharon White. (Arnold Donald, the boss of publicly listed cruise company Carnival, is African American.) What makes this even more serious is that many companies seem to believe they’ve “solved” their diversity “problem” by focusing on hiring more women. 

Staff from BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) backgrounds, particularly those of African and African-Caribbean heritage, are too often stuck in junior management roles. By neglecting this pool of talent, companies are spurning opportunities for growth, narrowing their thinking and – according to the Race in the Workplace review by former Mitie Group CEO Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith – costing themselves around £24bn a year. With COVID-19 putting the very future of so many businesses in jeopardy, this waste of talent and fresh thinking is something we can ill afford.

Despite all the discussion about the British workplace being too “pale, male and stale”, if anything, over the past decade, it has grown even paler. This is particularly ironic given the public outcry against the Home Office’s wrongful deportation of at least 83 members of the Windrush generation, named after the ship Empire Windrush, which on 22 June 1948, brought 491 Jamaican immigrants to the UK.

Between 1948 and 1971, nearly 500,000 people left the Caribbean to live in Britain. They came initially because of the lack of jobs at home and an acute labour shortage in the UK. Many immigrants didn’t have identity papers because, under the laws of the time, as inhabitants of the British Empire they were regarded as British citizens.

West Indian immigrants at Victoria Station, 1956

The Home Office’s attempt to create a “hostile environment” for illegal immigration backfired in 2018 when it was found, by the National Audit Office, to have “failed to protect [the] rights to live, work and access services” of people it had deported, detained or denied benefits to. The outrage was, in its way, encouraging – in other countries, such deportations have inspired applause, not protests – but once the media spotlight had moved on, British society seemed to revert to an unsatisfactory status quo in which the talents of many black workers are still seriously under-used. 

This matters for many reasons. “Barriers exist, from entry through to board level, that prevent these individuals from reaching their full potential,” says McGregor-Smith. “This is not only unjust for them, but the ‘lost’ productivity and potential represents a huge missed opportunity for businesses and impacts the economy as a whole. The potential benefit to the UK economy from full representation of BAME individuals across the labour market, through improved participation and progression, is estimated to be 1.3 per cent of GDP.” 

Race in the Workplace found that BAME individuals account for 14 per cent of the UK’s working age population but fill only six per cent of senior management positions. The Parker Review, which monitors ethnic diversity on FTSE 100 boards, found that just 84 out of 1,048 company directors in 2018 were from BAME backgrounds (down from 85 the year before).

“Most business leaders would like to do more, but they have an idea about what a top executive looks like. They’ve got to the place where they can envisage a woman being that person, but it’s not in their minds, at the moment, that a person of colour could be that,” said Trevor Phillips, the former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in a BBC interview which predated his own recent suspension from the Labour party over accusations of Islamophobia.

“The glass ceiling for women hasn’t been broken, but it’s cracking. People of colour seem to be superglued to the floor.” 

Many companies seem blind to the impact this has on black staff at all levels. Ambitious black workers, surveys suggest, are largely demotivated as they quickly conclude that they will only ever go so far. Members of the Windrush generation always felt they had to work much harder to be as successful as their white colleagues. More than half a century later, an ICM poll shows that 57 per cent of BAME workers still believe that. 

The same survey showed that 79 per cent of BAME workers were unsatisfied with their career progression (compared with 26 per cent of white workers). The main reasons for this, they felt, were not being in with the “right” people (71 per cent), outright discrimination (58 per cent) and a dearth of role models (48 per cent). In addition, 52 per cent said they would have to change companies to earn a promotion (compared with 38 per cent of their white colleagues). Little wonder that, in 2018, 48 per cent of BAME workers believed the British workplace to be a “fundamentally racist environment”. 

There is a compelling commercial case for a diverse workforce: McKinsey research shows that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 per cent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. But to create, and maintain, a true meritocracy, diversity has to be built on ethical foundations rather than the pursuit of profit. 

Diversity matters 

“I get quite irritated by the business case for diversity, not because I don’t believe there is one, but I feel unbelievably strongly that the reason why we need to be more diverse and more inclusive is because it matters in its own right,” says John Lewis’s White. “Even if business was going to be as effective with a homogeneous culture, it is a matter of principle that we reflect the different perspectives of the entire country. When I was chair of Ofcom, we were running really hard to catch up but we did that because it was the right thing to do, regardless of whether the business case stacked up.” 

Understanding the distinctions within the BAME category gives us a more rounded picture. In a 2018 government survey, those of Indian heritage were the most widely represented with 11 per cent in senior management positions, roughly on a par with the figures for white staff. With just 5.1 per cent in these posts, Britons of African and African-Caribbean descent were seriously underrepresented. 

Even if these employees do climb a few rungs on the corporate ladder, inequity lingers: a recent Equality and Human Rights Commission survey showed black workers with degrees earn, on average, 23.1 per cent less than similarly qualified white people. They are also less likely to have made it to one of the best universities in the first place. The proportion of black students at the 24 elite seats of learning in the Russell Group is just six per cent, half of what it is among British undergraduates in general.

This matters at university – there are only 85 black professors at British universities, out of 17,880 – and in the workplace, where a disproportionate number of senior managers have graduated from a Russell Group university. 

For these – and several other reasons – African Caribbeans are finding it much harder to succeed than they expected. From the 1960s to the 1980s, Britain’s visible black middle class grew. As the born-here children of the Windrush generation left the education system – more often with a professional qualification than a university degree – many found white-collar jobs in local government, the civil service, banking and law.

Their parents, accepting that they would never return to the Caribbean or West Africa, had instilled in their children the need to invest in their futures in Britain. Home ownership soared. By the third generation, thousands of black children were studying at private schools. By integrating, rather than assimilating, this new generation of black Britons seemed to be setting themselves up at every level of society, while remaining close enough to their immigrant parents and grandparents to retain a strong sense of who they were. 

It’s at this point, in 2020, some 40 years after many black Britons found white-collar jobs, that the upper levels of UK plc should be reflecting their experience. So why does progress seem to have completely stalled? 

Everyday bias

A recent ICM poll provides stark evidence of everyday racial bias and microaggressions in Britain. The results showed that ethnic minorities were three times as likely to have been thrown out of or denied entrance to a restaurant, bar or club in the past five years, and twice as likely to have encountered abuse or rudeness from a stranger in the past week. Unconscious bias, as well as more explicit and deliberate racism, has a major influence on the way millions of people who were born in the UK or moved here are treated. 

Britain’s media must take at least some of the blame. Their charge sheet goes beyond the direct, but no less subconsciously persuasive, racism meted out to Manchester City and England forward Raheem Sterling in the tabloids to the visual shorthand with which publishers and broadcasters tell the news.

Stories about failing schools routinely show stock footage of classes full of black pupils. In contrast, black parents joke that, come A-level results day, the BBC will dig out an inevitable clip of blonde girls squealing and jumping in triumph. 

“It would be generous to describe the broadcast industry’s efforts as tokenistic. The gap between the self-estimation in this field and actual reality is probably wider than in any other sector I know,” says Phillips, a broadcaster and former ITV executive. “Television thinks it is trying really hard, but it hasn’t really begun – at least the bankers know they are useless.”

This delusion, he argues, has led to a collective mishandling of race issues. “The industry completely lacks confidence, does stupid things and makes big mistakes,” he says. 

One of those mistakes is the stereotypical portrayal of black culture as “street culture”. The unintended consequence of the success of black musicians like Bob Marley and Stormzy, and the high profile of such musical genres as reggae, grime and hip hop, is to strengthen the perception that being black is rooted in suffering, aggression and rebellion. And who wants that around the boardroom table? 

The generalisation that all black people are effectively the same is reflected in the well intentioned categorisation: black, Asian and minority ethnic. When the term BAME was introduced in the 1990s, it was supposed to make sure that every ethnic group in Britain was recognised. The obvious flaw with BAME is that it effectively says that the main distinguishing factor for 7.6 million Britons – at the last census – is that they are not white nor English. This categorisation also makes it harder to assess whether some ethnic minorities are more disadvantaged than others. 

“I’ve always hated the term,” says White. “I find it almost discriminatory because it lumps together colour and ethnicity and geographic background into one lump of ‘not white’ when the issues, the life chances and the possibilities of progression are so different. Every time I’ve had responsibility for diversity, I’ve gone through all the documents, deleting ‘BAME’ and putting in ‘people from different ethnic backgrounds’.” 

Nuances of categorisation also obscure how much progress British industry is making. Too many publicly quoted companies have met diversity targets by employing black people in more menial jobs, while the imbalance is maintained at management level, which can only reinforce unconscious bias.

Marvin Rees became the first black directly elected mayor of a UK city in 2016

Once notorious for this, the BBC has made serious efforts to address the issue in the past decade. When surveyed in 2018, the broadcaster had an overall BAME percentage of 14.8 (against a 2020 target of 15), but only about one in 10 BAME staff was in a leadership role. At the time the broadcaster admitted: “We are a long way from our leadership target, and this requires attention. We also recognise that the highest proportion of BAME staff are in the professional service and World Service areas, so we need to do more work to ensure there is a spread across the BBC.” 

For various reasons, including the fear of causing offence or of alienating other groups of staff, many white executives find it difficult to talk about race. But, if we are to truly progress, businesses need to start the conversation now.

Regular forums and discussions in which the whole business takes part would show that managers are doing this out of conviction, rather than expediency. A proactive stance makes it easier for white staff to be part of the discussion, promotes the exchange of ideas, stimulates corporate action, and ensures that progress is reviewed transparently.

Black workers – or for that matter any other disadvantaged group – must feel included and valued, rather than perceived as an issue that needs to be “fixed”. Realistic targets, with the emphasis on targets rather than quotas, help. The former implies this is something the organisation wants to do, the latter that it is being imposed. For all their importance, targets are useless if they’re not regularly monitored and reviewed. 

To make significant progress, companies need to gather as much relevant data as possible and analyse it carefully and honestly. Lord Woolley, founder and director of Operation Black Vote, who has a leading role in the government’s Race Disparity Audit, says: “Opportunities and life chances should not be dependent upon how light your skin colour is, or whether you’re from the ‘right’ background. We need all the talent we can muster to turbocharge UK plc. Using data to demonstrate inequalities really does work. Working with schools, universities, ministers, public servants and businesses, we have found an acceptance of most of the data, and a willingness to collaborate to put things right. It’s difficult for powerful people and their institutions to say: ‘We got this wrong, we should change our approach, help us change it’, without data.” 

When done properly, unconscious-bias training can also work. When the Royal Bank of Scotland initiated such a scheme, 97 per cent of the 40,000 participants said it would affect how they did their job, and 96 per cent said they would recommend it. 

The key words here are “when done properly”. Such training can alert well meaning white staff to unintended microaggressive acts, encouraging them to change their behaviour without condemning them as racist. But it takes time to challenge attitudes that have been formed unconsciously over a person’s lifetime. 

Starbucks rightly attracted widespread derision when, in response to documented racist behaviour by staff, it announced one day’s unconscious-bias training for every employee. 

There are some quick wins in the fight against unconscious bias. Not demanding that photos are attached to job applications and CVs is a simple but significant step forward.

I once asked a magazine editor, for whom I worked, why it was necessary to ask job applicants to include photos with their CVs and the best he could come up with was: “So we can recognise candidates when they come in.” It is easy to forget, too, the impact of corporate visuals – websites, brochures, office art and so on. If you hope to attract staff from ethnic minorities, and motivate those you already have, it’s not a good look to show white people in suits and black people in overalls. 

Box ticking 

The instinct to recruit what is reassuringly familiar in terms of background, education and race, which is hardwired into all of us, only achieves “more of before”. Fewer box-ticking recruitment policies might help. Focusing on what a candidate with different life experiences may bring in terms of a distinct viewpoint and fresh enthusiasm may be more rewarding than judging candidates on bureaucratic criteria that, almost by definition, reflect a legacy mindset.

The fact that these candidates don’t represent the way things have “always been done” is kind of the point. Why not actively recruit in areas with a high black population, selecting the best and the brightest, in much the same way as companies do with Russell-educated applicants, with their tendency to be white and middle class? 

Sometimes, we tell ourselves that we’re making slow progress when we’re really making no progress at all. Phillips issues a stark warning to British business: “Our analysis shows that after five years of monitoring, the promise that things would change over time for ethnic minority leaders in the FTSE 100 looks just as empty as the corporate pipeline. If UK companies keep ignoring the experience and actions of their US competitors, they risk falling behind. With this attitude, post-Brexit, we can expect talented female and minority executives – just like many of our minority actors – to exit to the USA to get a break.”

Images: Getty Images

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