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Sandra Kerr

Business in the Community

Race Equality Director

Read more about Sandra Kerr

Businesses must do more to understand the lived experiences of ethnically diverse employees

Understanding lived experience can change the future of race at work.

We all know that UK business has a long way to go to ensuring that every person is treated with equality, fairness, and respect.    

From my time advising the Cabinet Office on diversity and inclusion, to leading Business in the Community’s Race Equality campaign, and my own experience as a black woman in the workplace, I have always been guided by understanding the real experiences of ethnically diverse people and how these discussions can help inform leaders and decision makers.

Providing opportunities for employees across the country to be supported, feel inspired and championed by, is not only good for business, but should form an essential part of business’ diversity and inclusion, people development, and wellbeing strategies.

Despite years of awareness, less than 5% of people in leadership roles across the public and private sectors identify as non-white, meaning that barriers to entry and progression remain firmly in place for many employees. Indeed, 33% of Black candidates feel their ethnicity will pose a barrier to getting their next role, in comparison to 1% of white candidates.

The socioeconomic imperative for action

When Business in the Community launched the first Race at Work Survey in 2015, we wanted to discover how people really felt about race at work, and more specifically, how racial identity had shaped their experiences in the workplace as well as their career potential. The findings helped inform 2017’s influential McGregor-Smith Review, which showed that people from non-white groups were underrepresented, underemployed and under-promoted in their places of work.

The review also showed the immense economic benefits the UK could reap if the workplace became more racially inclusive bringing a £24bn boost to GDP (1.3% of the total in 2017), equating to £481m per week.

Today, with national borrowing at historically high levels due to the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, there is an even bigger argument for employers to take responsibility and contribute to the UK’s long-term prosperity.

Creating change for everyone’s benefit

Though encouraged by receiving 24,457 responses to the first Race at Work Survey, the findings made for some bleak reading. Some of the key issues highlighted were the need for leadership at policy making level to tackle racial harassment and bullying, and the need for business to support the recruitment and progression of diverse talent.

To help change this reality, BITC launched the Race at Work Charter in 2018 built from the recommendations set out in the McGregor-Smith-Review. So far, more than 600 businesses have signed up to the charter, with almost 400 of these doing so since the tragic killing of George Floyd in May 2020.

Representing 18 sectors and more than 5.5 million employees, each and every one of them has pledged to go above and beyond box ticking policies or paying lip service to improvement by committing to five key actions:

  • Appoint an executive sponsor for race.
  • Capture ethnicity data and publicise progress.
  • Commit at board level to zero tolerance of harassment and bullying.
  • Make it clear that supporting equality in the workplace is the responsibility of all leaders and managers.
  • Take action that supports ethnic minority career progression.

The above actions are things that every employer could do today as a sign of their commitment to tackling racism at all levels in their workplaces.

Providing opportunities for employees across the country to be supported, feel inspired and championed by, is not only good for business, but should form an essential part of business’ diversity and inclusion, people development, and wellbeing strategies.

An opportunity missed – for now

Despite the commitments made by many employers, when the government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities published its report on 31 March 2021, I was not alone in expressing that the Commission had missed a vital opportunity to really accelerate progress on racial equality for the UK.

There were some fine words in this report, but nothing we haven’t seen before. We don’t need 24 new recommendations; we need action on those set out in the 2017 McGregor-Smith Review.

Most of all, we need the introduction of ethnicity pay gap reporting. The report isn’t the full picture. Discouraging the term ‘BAME’ (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) doesn’t tackle the real issue: people are still just not comfortable talking about race.

Frankly, we cannot say that the UK is better than the rest of the world when we can’t even start something as basic as mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting. Publishing data may not be a silver bullet, but it is a line in the sand.

Make your voice heard today

Whether or not your organisation is publishing ethnicity pay gap data, the 2021 Race at Work Survey offers a vital chance for anyone self-employed or employed aged 16 and over to share their views on the everyday realities of race at work.

There has never been a more important time for the UK’s business and political leaders to listen very carefully to the lived experiences of people who have felt both the positive and negative impacts of diversity and equality practice in the workplace.

If we are serious about driving real change, it is these insights that will add fresh impetus and increase levels of accountability and transparency to benefit workers across the country.

Interested in this topic? Read Six ways to protect the ethnic minority agenda in the workplace.

Author Profile Picture
Sandra Kerr

Race Equality Director

Read more from Sandra Kerr

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