October is the UK’s Black History Month. Which makes it the ideal time to look back on the impact of almost 18 months of Black Lives Matter being in the public eye.
Race is one of the key areas where the work of HR crosses into social issues. And last year we had a real opportunity to make a long-lasting impact, when racial differences and disparities finally received the attention they deserved from the public, business and the government.
Since then we’ve seen the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities deliver their report. It included a call to finally retire the BAME acronym, which has been used interchangeably with ‘not White British’.
It’s a big step forward which recognises a truth that’s been obvious for years – unequal outcomes aren’t just due to not being white. The BAME acronym has meant both the Indian and Chinese ethnic groups have been labelled disadvantaged, whilst outperforming all other ethnic groups on almost every metric.
And awkward facts keep coming up the further one digs through the labels. Take the disparity of outcomes between Black African and Black Caribbean Brits. Over two thirds of Black African young people go to university, but fewer than half of Black Caribbean young people.
Which means your award-winning graduate programme for young Black grads is probably reinforcing an inequality. Like I said – awkward.
And even the Black African ethnic group is a lazy inference. Black Africans of Somali heritage have little in common with Black Africans of Nigerian heritage.
UNDERSTANDING THE NUMBERS
We know monitoring is important. We know that outside of the urban cities racial diversity almost disappears, or at least changes drastically. That means basing your organisation in Leicester or six miles outside the city boundary in Loughborough has a huge impact on local workforce diversity; there are 4x proportionally more Black people in Leicester than Loughborough.
That means when setting workforce diversity targets your definitions are important. If your aim is to be representative of the local area, does that mean the immediate area, the council area or the entire region?
We saw an immediate response to last summer’s protests from senior leaders. However, it’s actions, rather than words, which let us see who simply put their name on a drafted press release, and who actually meant it.
Last month’s email discussed culture change, and the difference between official and unofficial workplace cultures. Black Lives Matter is a fantastic example of how immovable unofficial culture can be.
Take last year’s report from tech firm EyeCue, who found that the skin tones featured in social media posts from beauty brands got much darker last summer as Black Lives Matter protests peaked, but then trended lighter again into the autumn.
Change was resisted, as it always is. As HR leaders we all know the change curve, and should recognise it applies here just as it does anywhere else.
POWER ≠ CONTROL
Whilst our position as employers gives us influence over social issues, it doesn’t give us control over them. Our initiatives contribute to change. But don’t change things by themselves. And as with all things, individuals go through the change curve at different rates.
We should also remember that whilst every part of your organisation can set themselves diversity targets, they’ll all have very different impacts and timescales.
The marketing department could quite easily switch a large amount of their spend to influencers of colour next quarter. It can pull ads from mainstream publications and increase spending with diverse publications. And it can do this without a single person of colour in its ranks.
HR’s work is much longer term. It’s typically measured in terms of workforce demographics, progression and retention. It looks at trends, not individual actions. Our actions show results over years, not months or quarters. Indeed, if we were to achieve dramatic demographic change in months, we’d have almost certainly broken the law.
We have a number of proven tools to steer change. Blind CVs. Unconscious bias awareness training. Listening to feedback from your employee populations, not just collecting it.
WHERE TO BEGIN
So what can we do in HR that delivers racial equality in both the workplace and society?
Convert objectors. Most of those objecting to your initiatives aren’t against racial equality, but they are against things like ‘woke nonsense’, ‘overpaid non-jobs’ and ‘wishy-washy workshops’.
You may have persuaded the board to embrace your initiative, but the failure of most diversity schemes is because they’re not communicated properly to those it’s aimed at!
If you have a large and diverse workforce, a one-size-fits-all training programme will miss most of its targets.
Reach out to the communities you work in, listen and understand. As we’ve already discussed, there’s no one homogenous ‘Black Community’. Black communities in Manchester will have a very different make-up and face very different challenges to Black communities in London.
If you actually want to make a difference, rather than simply ticking off a box for your annual review, your actions need to be tailored and bespoke to every location you operate from.
The great thing about this approach is that whilst there’s a lot of upfront work, you’ll create a playbook of trusted interventions that you can reuse.
Stop looking at census figures. You wouldn’t make decisions based on ten year old data in any other part of HR, so why are you doing it here? Initial census figures from 2021 are due next March, and will no doubt result in frantic updates to internal representation targets.
So beware of trumpeting results against census figures this year. Instead, begin preparing for next year’s figures, and where you can begin to look at local figures for the areas you work in. Also consider that racial demographics aren’t uniform through age groups, and the working population is considerably more ethnically diverse than the population as a whole.
As HR leaders, we know sustainable change comes incrementally, not overnight. We make a small change, embed it, then build upon it – with an eye to the end goal.
Sir Keir Starmer was criticised for referring to Black Lives Matter as a moment, rather than a movement. But in reality it’s both. We should all hope the movement doesn’t need to take to the streets again, as that will probably come as the result of another Black person’s death. In that respect the Black Lives Matter protests we saw was a moment.
But we should also ensure that moment was a trigger. One we all use to do better. Has anything really changed? I don’t think we should expect end-results yet. But you should have begun taking actions.