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Dani Saadu


Global Director of People Development

Read more about Dani Saadu

How can we improve representation of black executives and non-executives in FTSE 100 companies?

Black representation at board level is non-existent. How can organisations change their approach to turn the dial on diverse leadership?

It was a Wednesday evening in early February of this year when I sat down to eat my dinner in front of the TV. I flicked on to Sky News to check the daily numbers of Covid cases and was presented with a report stating there were no black people in the top three roles – Chair, CEO, or CFO – in any of the FTSE 100 firms. Even more depressing is that the percentage of black people on the boards of FTSE 100 companies has gone down from 1.3% to 1.1% according to the Green Park Business Leaders 2021 index.  

How did it make me feel?

Being a black person, I got very emotional watching this Sky News report. Last year, the death of George Floyd ignited global protests from the BLM movement. I remember a lot of people questioning ‘why are protests happening in the UK when the incident with George Floyd happened in the US?’ I saw multiple comments on social media and had conversations with acquaintances who believed the UK does not have racial inequality. Watching this news report highlighted to me one of the many reasons why the BLM movement is growing and spreading awareness around racial injustice. 

Diversity and inclusion needs to be an official strategic priority for all companies in the UK.

Why do I feel this is happening in the UK?

It would be easy to blame systemic racism but, in my experience, there is more going on here. There is a real lack of honest conversations being had at the most senior levels about the importance of diversity and inclusion and the benefits it brings. A lot of companies see D&I as a tick box exercise and do not understand how it drives competitive advantage and contributes to more profits.

There is still a lack of awareness, education and empathy when it comes to diversity and inclusion. From my experience, when D&I is discussed in the workplace, people tend to default to gender diversity rather than racial diversity. People feel more comfortable with discussing gender inequalities than race. 

In the multiple conversations I have had with leaders about the lack of racial diversity at senior levels, most people’s default stance is to get defensive or think that I am trying to push positive discrimination or that I am calling their organisation racist. Once I have had the chance to explain properly where I am coming from as a black person who is very passionate about their career, a lot of people get it and actively try to support the diversity and inclusion agenda. 

The important questions to ask are:

  •  Are we having enough of these challenging D&I conversations?
  • Do we make the time to raise awareness and educate the key decision makers in the workplace?
  • Are we creating positive environments to have these conversations? 

How do we improve things? 

Until BAME people can have more open, honest conversations about racial diversity in the workplace with white people things will never improve. The conversations need to be focused on the problem and solutions, not on making it personal to individuals.

Diversity and inclusion needs to be an official strategic priority for all companies in the UK and there should be clear SMART D&I targets or objectives that are shared publicly so that board members are held to account. All FTSE 100 companies should have a D&I role on the board and they should have good quality people data on D&I that should be measured on an ongoing basis. 

The quality of their talent management functions is critical to identifying and developing talent from the black community. All talent management strategies should crossover with D&I strategies to ensure people from all groups are getting equal opportunities.   

Positive action vs. positive discrimination 

According to The Week, “Positive discrimination is known as affirmative action in the US. It is the process of increasing the number of employees from underrepresented groups – such as ethnic minorities, women or disabled people (in workplaces from which they have been excluded) by preferentially selecting recruits with those characteristics.”

Positive discrimination is generally unlawful in the UK and is protected by the equality act 2010. Personally, I am not a fan of affirmative action. I do not believe anybody should be given an unfair advantage because of protected characteristics. I would not like to see people get jobs just because of the colour of their skin. That is not how you solve the problem!

There are plenty of black people in the UK capable of being CEOs, Chairs and CFOs but internal talent management functions do not always effectively collaborate with their D&I functions (that is if a company has one) and therefore people from underrepresented groups do not get easily identified as talent.  

Good HR professionals should challenge their leaders if there is a lack of diversity in the people pipeline.

It is all about positive action! According to The University of Cambridge, this route involves “a range of measures allowed under the Equality Act 2010, which can be lawfully taken to encourage and train people from under-represented groups to help them overcome disadvantages in competing with other applicants.” There are so many things organisations can do around positive action if they make it a priority. 

Here’s some examples of positive action that would help these FTSE 100 companies (and other businesses) have a better representation of black people on their boards:

  • Having BAME networks that celebrate diversity by putting on events, educating people about the challenges of being from different groups and raising awareness of any discrimination taking place in the workplace 

  • Placing job adverts that target the BAME community to increase the number of applicants from this group 

  • Offering training, internships or apprenticeships to help BAME people get opportunities or progress at work. 

  • Providing mentoring or reverse mentoring for BAME people

A strong effective HR function is key

It is very important that senior HR professionals are having open honest conversations with their leaders about the importance of diversity and inclusion. When it comes to talent reviews and succession planning, good HR professionals should challenge their leaders if there is a lack of diversity in the people pipeline. It is critical for the HR function to encourage, support and drive positive action wherever possible. 

Let’s hope in the next 10 years we see more black people and diverse boards in the FTSE 100. 

Interested in this topic? Read our interview with Asif Sadiq MBE on race inequality, intersectionality and the journey to belonging.

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Dani Saadu

Global Director of People Development

Read more from Dani Saadu

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