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SEEN BUT NOT HEARD? HOW TO CREATE INCLUSIVE WORKPLACES FOR BAME EMPLOYEES

When organisations treat diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) as a box-ticking exercise, and fail to implement the equity and inclusion aspects, it renders it null and void. What is the benefit to ethnic minority employees of working for your organisation if they’re overlooked and blocked from progressing?

WORDS: ISABEL OVERTON

17th September 2020

Most organisations tend to consider themselves as open-minded and progressive, and those that have diverse workforces like to let their demographic data do the talking. But a diverse workforce doesn’t equal a fair and inclusive one.

If we look past the data and closely inspect the culture, what will it tell us? Are there disparities between pay rates among different ethnicities? Is leadership representative of the workforce and society? Do all employees feel comfortable in their work environment? Are they treated fairly?

Equity and inclusion are important aspects of creating a fairer, more respectful workforce, and yet they’re often overlooked. Getting a more diverse workforce in through the door is just the first step towards achieving true DE&I – and what follows takes a lot more work.


Creating a welcoming culture

The first thing an organisation needs to do when it comes to addressing equity and inclusion in the workplace is reflect on its own challenges and acknowledge where things have gone wrong.

Dev Mistry, internal communications executive at Virgin Media, says: “Some industries have such little diversity, but it’s not a lack of opportunities or accessibility to the roles on offer causing this. It’s about how the individual believes they will feel once inside.

“It’s a commonly understood sentiment by certain groups from BAME backgrounds that we will always have to work 10 times harder than our white colleagues just to get the same result. This has nothing to do with our own ability – rather, it’s all to do with the barriers that we face when it comes to recognition and progression. And if someone believes an organisation has a culture in place that isn’t actively addressing this, they’re not going to want to work there.

“As internal communicators, you need to be honest with yourselves and your leaders about your culture before anything can change. It won’t be easy, but it’s important.”

 

Underlying racism in the workplace

Part of creating an inclusive workplace is ensuring racism, in all its forms, isn’t tolerated – just because racism isn’t loud, it doesn’t mean it isn’t present.

“There have been countless occasions in my career when people have made assumptions about me based on the fact that I am of South Asian descent,” says Dev. 

“I’ve been told numerous times that I sound different to how people would expect when they see me – what does that even mean? There’s also so much identity shaming and belittling that goes on in organisations, like repeatedly pronouncing people’s names wrong – once is a mistake, twice is on purpose.

“Sadly, stuff like this is more common than people probably realise. How frequently have we heard Black women be labelled as sassy and fiery when they speak up in situations where they aren’t being treated fairly?

“IC needs to use its platform and know-how of language to raise awareness of these forms of microaggressions – no matter what level they happen at. We help to set the standard. It might be something HR deals with, but IC helps to implement it.”

 

“Inclusivity builds community, and people will feel more comfortable in a space that does this well.”
DEV MISTRY, VIRGIN MEDIA


The benefits of a diverse workforce

It should go without saying, but making the most of diverse workforces has a host of benefits.

“You get so many different points of view, but you also have many more people to bounce things off of and to hold you to account,” says Dev. “If you hire 10 people from 10 different backgrounds, you have 10 mirrors to look into, whereas if you hire 10 people from the same background, you’ll only have one.

“It’s also great for those members of your workforce who are from different cultures and have different backgrounds. Inclusivity builds community, and people will feel more comfortable in a space that does this well.”

Championing inclusivity in organisations isn’t just good for the people, it’s also good for business, and your company could lose out if it fails to do this. Research by business-community outreach charity Business In The Community (BITC) found that organisations with more diverse teams have 36 per cent better financial returns.

“Workforces that make the most of their diversity are more productive, and they bring more varied ideas to the table,” says Dev. “Variation in thoughts, styles and personalities will lead to a better work culture, and this in turn will lead to more creativity and different ways of problem solving.”

For organisations that have diverse customers and clients, listening to its racially diverse workforce will also help to marry up internal thinking with external messaging, and ensure the comms isn’t tone deaf.
 

Representing society and your wider audience

Effie Kanyua, director of PR and comms at publisher Hearst UK, says: “Listening to the diverse voices in your organisation will allow you to better represent the society in which you operate in, and best serve your audiences and consumers.

“If you don’t have diversity, then you won’t know how to communicate to such audiences in an authentic way. It’s not hard to find examples of organisations that have missed the mark trying to do this – if you only listen to people who think the same way as you, things will be missed.

“That’s also why it is important to have diversity and inclusion at all levels. Your internal voice affects your external output, and if diverse voices aren’t being heard at the top in your leadership teams, then you increase the risk for reputational damage when it comes to tone deaf executive decisions.”


Encouraging talent through inclusive language

Retaining and developing talent from diverse backgrounds is an imperative step towards having an equitable organisation, but it will be near impossible to maintain if your managers and leadership aren’t aware of, or are unwilling to address, the barriers people from ethnic minority groups face when it comes to getting promotions.

“As you should with external recruitment roles, consider the language used in internal advertisements and help ensure HR and managers aren’t excluding groups of people through these,” says Dev. “Have them consider the words and phrases they’re using, and whether these may be putting potential candidates off.

“As communicators, we know that sometimes simplicity is key, and using overly complicated jargon can be off-putting and discourage those whose first language may not be English to apply for a role that they might be perfectly suited to and be able to excel in.

“When it comes to performance management reviews, managers should always be basing them on people’s skills, qualities and traits, but bias has a major part to play in the way we perceive and, in some cases, subsequently treat individuals.

“It’s widely known that we have a tendency to instinctively feel more drawn towards people who look like us, and often this is mirrored in hiring and promotion. Help managers to understand the impact bias in the workplace can have, and encourage open communication between themselves and their teams in order to strengthen their relationships.”


Unconscious bias

Implementing training to raise awareness of and address these issues has clear benefits, but it can only take your organisation so far.

“At Hearst UK, we’ve done a lot of training around unconscious bias, but we’ve also been sure to take it further in order to support our diverse talent,” says Effie. “Lots of organisations fail to follow through once the training is over. Conversations need to continue post-training to remind people about what they’ve learned and what is important to your organisation.

“Do the groundwork and then find ways to weave the messages you’re championing into regular comms, so it becomes ingrained in people’s mindsets. And be sure to consistently review your practices to ensure they’re still fair – these things are constantly evolving, and keeping outdated practices in place will hurt your workforce.”
 

£24 million

Estimated amount of money that increased BAME participation and progression in the UK labour market could add to the UK economy annually.
Source: CIPD, 2017


Career progression for BAME employees

In most industries, the higher BAME employees climb, the harder progression gets. Research undertaken by BITC found that, despite the fact that one in eight of the UK working-age population is from a BAME background, only one in 13 people at management levels in both the private and public sector are from a BAME background.

There is further disparity between ethnic minority groups when it comes to leadership positions – in the UK, just 1.5 per cent of managers, directors and senior officials are Black.

For Jennifer Thomas, a director of communications, being proactive about approaching your diverse talent and finding out what they need from the organisation is important. “We’ve done much better in identifying the needs women have and the blockers that stop them from progressing past a certain level, but for some reason, when it comes to race, everyone gets scared to discuss it.

“If your organisation has aspirations to have more Black senior leaders, for example, then you need to work backwards from that and figure out where the opportunities to intervene in the journey are and why it hasn’t been a reality as of yet.

“Work with senior leadership to understand who you have, who you want to reach and how you can support them and help them get there.”

For Effie, finding ways to hold yourself to account can also help. “Sign up to initiatives that will require you to evidence the progress you’re making when it comes to your own commitments,” she says. “At Hearst UK, we’ve signed up to the Race At Work Charter, and this gives us a way to solidify our commitment to creating an environment in which our BAME employees feel they belong.

“Typically, within such initiatives, there are various stipulations which employers need to meet, and these can help to align and structure your focus. You can’t always do everything at once, so break down your goals and take it step by step instead.”


Talk to employees about racicm and diversity

Addressing equity and inclusion can feel overwhelming, and no one will expect you to have all the answers straight away, so involve your workforce as much as possible to ensure you’re getting the right input.

“Listen to what your people are telling you matters to them most, and then start from there,” says Jennifer. “If you tackle it that way you will open up minds over time, and eventually it will evolve and spread throughout the organisation and become embedded into your culture – don’t forget, it’s everyone’s responsibility, so you need buy-in from all of your employees.

“A big red flag that hinders inclusion in the workplace is corporate and hierarchical messaging. Don’t try to find the solutions to problems like this in the boardroom or in someone’s office. Work with your employees to collectively right the wrongs and, in the process, you’ll build up confidence in the organisation’s culture. And always give employees ways to feed back to you – including confidentially, should they wish – and to ask questions.”

Dev agrees, adding: “Don’t be afraid to talk about racism and diversity with your workforce. You shouldn’t shy away from these words if you’re being honest in your approach. If you’re delivering an internal campaign around it, be sure to consult your people first – you’re not subject experts.

“Don’t just assume anyone from a BAME background will want to talk about it, however. Build a strong network of people who you know want to engage – make the most of any culture and ethnicity networks and groups if you have them.

“At Virgin Media we have a ‘Belonging’ strategy that aims to ensure our company reflects the diverse communities we serve, and that all of our employees can be themselves at work and realise their potential. A lot of this is about listening to our people, and not just when they speak up.”


Share resources and personal experiences

Once you’ve heard from the diverse voices in your workforce, make sure your comms reflect their input.

At Hearst UK, Effie and her team use comms to share resources and help educate staff, tying in messaging with real events. “We commit to informing our workforce, so we regularly share accessible resources and direct them to information that will broaden their perspectives,” says Effie.

“Earlier this year, when the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement came back into the fore, we shared regular comms around allyship and resources that explained what BLM was and why it was significant.

“This showed our workforce that we were aware of what was happening outside of our doors and that we cared. Our CEO, James Wildman, hosts virtual all-staff meetings on a weekly basis, and we dedicated one to BLM. During the session, we had various Black employees and allies who belonged to Hearst’s BAME network speak about their own experiences around racism and it had a real effect on the wider workforce.

“Hearing first-hand people’s experiences, and humanising them, is important. It brings to life the messages you want to communicate that maybe don’t translate as easily in written form.”

If your organisation still doesn’t have culture and ethnicity networks or steering groups set up, then get insight from external organisations that are approaching equity and inclusion positively and successfully.

“Getting external support should give you the steer you need,” says Effie. “There are people who have been working in these spaces for years, and they will have a wealth of knowledge and practical guidance that can help you.”


Writer's note
The term BAME, which stands for Black, Asian and minority ethnic, divides opinion among those who it aims to represent. For me, the danger of the term lies in a lack of understanding by those who use it and the failure to recognise the consequences of the label – when used lazily and incorrectly, it lumps all non-white people into one group in an attempt to avoid recognising and addressing the needs of individual communities, and this acts as a blocker for real change. When used in appropriate context with full understanding that it represents individuals with differing needs, however, it is a practical way to discuss the wider issue of inclusion and diversity across societies that have failed in these aspects. It is in this latter context that the term BAME has been applied throughout this feature.

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