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The Networking group Black and HR conducted an online poll in which 77% of respondents said that their workplace had done nothing to address what has been happening in the black community in recent months.
It can be difficult for employers to know what to do or say, for fear of getting it wrong, but ignoring such a fundamentally important topic won’t help.
Employers know that the Equality Act 2010 sets out the minimum standards required of employers, to prevent and protect individuals from race discrimination in the workplace. But making a difference takes more than doing the bare minimum.
We’d like to present you with an insight from an HR professional whose role in the NHS involves her promoting and supporting equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives:
In the last 6 months, the impact of COVID on Black, Asian and minority ethnic (B.A.M.E) workforce within the UK has been significant. We saw an increased number of the B.A.M.E community dying from the virus. Employees going to their workplace were doing so with a legitimate fear of the risk to their own life, whilst carrying the burden of the knowledge that they could impact the health of their loved ones. B.A.M.E employees were coping with unprecedented levels of trauma: the overwhelming stress and anxiety associated with working within a global pandemic, as well as the grief of bereavement of family, friends, and colleagues.
As an HR practitioner I witnessed many B.A.M.E employees fearing for their own safety and for those within their immediate family. They expressed their anger at being subjected daily to the heightened dangers posed by COVID-19. This was especially highlighted by global events such as the Black Lives Matters movement, and the increased awareness of race inequalities. I personally lost a friend, whilst confronting my personal and professional experiences of racism and injustice. I realised that as I shared my awareness of the B.A.M.E experience on social media platforms; closet racist were identified within my friendship circle – evident from their discriminatory views and opinions. My resilience was repeatedly challenged on a both a personal and professional level. I am certain I wasn’t alone, and that this experience was echoed across the lives of many B.A.M.E employee across the UK.
Time for Change or be left behind
This truly has been a very challenging and emotive time for all, especially as the world prepares for a potential second wave of the virus and the onset of flu season. I urge organisations to take active steps towards real institutional change, rather than offer opportunist, empty token gestures. We are at a pivotal time, with racial inequality being the centre of focus. Organisational leaders need to acknowledge, listen and act now - especially businesses in and around London.
I have lived and worked in London since the 90s, and am fortunate to be part of a diverse and vibrant community full of different languages and cultures. The capital’s workforce is a representation of this multicultural community, however, despite this, diversity is not being embraced.
Senior leaders and business owners must demonstrate true and meaningful change through leadership that is compassionate and employee centred. It is vital that they have equality and diversity at the forefront of their mind in every decision they make, thus embedding this within the infrastructure of their business, which is then reflected by their workforce. Failure to focus on diversity and address race inequality will ultimately have a detrimental impact on business reputation, growth potential and the bottom line.
I fully understand that trying to initiate sustainable change, when it comes to tackling racism and discrimination, takes courage and grit. We have recently seen a growing trend of large corporate organisations taking a stand and showing their support for the B.A.M.E community, which takes courage and commitment. ITV showed its support for Diversity‘s performance on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ after Ofcom received 24,500 complaints from the general public, by issuing a full page advert publicly backing their performance. The international sports world has shown its support of the Black Lives Matters movement with sports players either taking the knee or with their shirts. Many organisations have committed to ensuring there is diversity and inclusivity at senior board / management levels.
Embracing diversity and change
To be a sustainable and successful business, it is important to recognise that institutional and structural racism exists – how to identify it, and how to address it. It is imperative that at this historic time, we acknowledge that as humans we all have some form of unconscious bias, to identify what they are and realise how they may impact our behaviour and decision making when it comes to the management and support of our staff.
I have heard on many occasions, ‘I do not have biases’, which is naïve as we are all biased to a certain degree. If an organisation fails to address this at an institutional level then this will feed into the organisational structure, leading to negative experiences for employees in a majority of cases.
It is apparent that staff who experience marginalisation suffer from distress, have low morale and feel disenfranchised, and this can have the potential to negatively affect the organisations retention rate. Ultimately, this could become a deep-rooted issue within the psyche of the individual and have a detrimental effect on the psychological contract (the trust and confidence) that exists between employer and employee. More research will need to take place on this area, in light of the developments of this year, as the impact on employees has not yet been fully realised. However, one thing is for certain, any actions an organisation can take to improve the experiences of its B.A.M.E staff will have to run in parallel to a health and wellbeing action plan.
Organisations need to operate at a higher level of consciousness; ensuring consideration is made for human rights, the community and society. This may feel like an uphill struggle but with each step towards corporate social responsibility, the closer the organisation is in moving towards operating within an equal playing field for its entire workforce.
Below I have outlined some of the basic practical steps an organisation can take to achieve this:
- Establishing a clear organisational led equality, diversity and inclusion governance structure
For a compassionate and inclusive culture to take root, a governing structure is essential to ensure that ideas are generated at grass-root level, discussed with key decision makers and forwarded to senior management for implementation and improvement. This can include creating a structure of engagement, in which B.A.M.E staff and senior management are able to promote, in partnership, organisational wide change by creating forums in which voices, ideas and lived experiences of the staff are openly shared and discussed with a view to creating organisational change.
- Establishing and supporting a staff led network
Creating safe and confidential spaces for B.A.M.E staff to share and discuss key issues of interest. Staff networks are great way to do this. Networks are led by staff, for staff and enable honest, open conversations. There are opportunities to share with other colleagues’ their experiences and challenges. The aim of the network is to create further dialogue, raise awareness of issues whilst ensuring staff are supported. Successful organisations with a fully engaged and active staff network are more aligned with the needs of its employees, embrace inclusivity and the diversity of voices and cultures.
- Embed values through organisation practices, policies and training
An organisation’s success is determined by the way in which the organisation treats and interacts with its workforce. If there is a clear, shared vision and objectives based on a value based system then you will find a shared common purpose. It is this common organisational purpose that will create a working culture that is fair and inclusive. It is therefore vital that organisational policies and practices promote race equality, ensuring delivered staff training address inappropriate behaviours and biases that may exist in managing, supporting staff and when decision making.
- Identify and promote the power of ally ship
In improving the experiences of B.A.M.E. staff within an organisation it’s important to promote the importance for non B.A.M.E staff to come forward and be an ally. Change can only be achieved with the support and engagement from a network of committed allies.
An ally is an individual who speaks out and stands against race discrimination and injustice. An ally works towards deconstructing implicit bias and is committed to continuously educating oneself on issues and experiences that affect minority groups. Allies play a vital role in addressing racial injustice. It is apparent that the more allies within an organisation, especially at a senior level, the better the experiences for B.A.M.E staff, and the more diversity is embraced.
There is a new, enriched sense of purpose and self-awareness in society and within businesses. There is a desire for change; this is now the time to take issues related to racial injustice and inequalities seriously and make a stand for the benefit of all, not just B.A.M.E workforce, showing solidarity and compassion.
Author: Mehvish Shaffi-Ajibola, LLB, ILEX, CIPD
Mehvish has worked within the NHS in London as an HR practitioner since 2012. Prior to the NHS, Mehvish worked in both the finance industry and third sector. She studied Law at undergraduate level and qualified as a legal executive and CIPD practitioner thereafter. Mehvish has held various roles including business development, Head of employee relations and HR business partner. She is an accredited coach, mental health first aider, and experienced mediator in community and workplace conflicts.
Mehvish currently is Head of Organisational Development and Equality, Diversity and Inclusion for a London NHS organisation. She is also a member of the North Central London People Board and co-leads the London wide HR black, asian and minority ethnic professional network. As an OD and EDI lead, Mehvish is involved in a complete system engagement at every level of an organisation; supporting organisational change, promoting and its partners in the community, supporting equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Thank you Mehvish for such an insightful article.