The UK’s thriving, talented BAME community continues to be severely underrepresented within our workplace environments. The numbers involved are striking: 14% of Britain’s working-age population is BAME, and yet currently they account for only 10% of the workforce. Narrowing further, only 6% of individuals occupying senior management positions in the UK are BAME. Addressing this discrepancy requires difficult discussions about both overt and unconscious discrimination, the absence of visible BAME role models in the British workforce, and the failure of many companies to be truly proactive in their support of diversity. After all, marginalizing BAME talent not only harms societal cohesion and our reputation globally, it is also detrimental to our economy. It has been estimated that full BAME representation would generate an extra £24 billion a year, or 1.3% of the UK’s GDP – a windfall in this era of austerity.
Tackling explicit discrimination is the first and most urgent step forward. In response to a recent call for lived experience, two-thirds of BAME individuals stated they had experienced racial harassment at a workplace within the last five years. Bullying and harassment on racial grounds should, on the face of it, be quick, if not painless, to root out. The far harder task is to identify and eradicate other, less overt, forms of discrimination.
This is clearly an emotionally charged issue, implying as it does that deep-held biases exist not only within faceless institutions, but also in the mindsets of outwardly well-intentioned people. One example of this would be the largely unconscious tendency for recruiters to hire employees in their own image. This recognised psychological trope perpetuates an absence of diversity in the workspace and leads to well-qualified BAME candidates often being overlooked for roles they could perform just as well as their non-BAME peers.
There are other, more concrete, barriers to making diverse hires in the UK. Companies of all sizes, and even charities, looking to recruit workers from outside the European Economic Area must first apply for a Sponsor Licence. The government has made the process of applying for this license a long and convoluted slog, no doubt as part of its effort to discourage the hiring of foreign workers. This sends an anti-diversity message from the top down, one that legitimizes, it could be argued, the unfair treatment of BAME talent from every background.
To seek answers for the lack of BAME representation only at the level of recruitment would also be shortsighted. Corporate structures need to be examined at every level in order to tease out all preconceived notions of what makes for a valued and rewarded employee. Once a BAME individual has attained a position, they must be adequately supported as their career continues to flourish. The importance of effective mentoring, sponsorship, role models and networks in delivering positive actions needs to be better understood within these company structures, with individuals at the very top being held more accountable for ensuring that inclusivity is an actualized goal, and not just another trending buzzword.
The visibility of BAME role models within an organisation has been shown to be of particular importance. When ‘Next Up’ systems work best, they operate at all levels of a business, not just the top-tier, and inspire confidence in BAME workers by demonstrating that real progression is possible. Mentoring in the form of peer circles has also been found to increase the likelihood of BAME individuals attaining their fullest potential.
Central to molding the reform that needs to be made should be BAME voices and experiences of working life. This begins with the simple acts of listening and recording. Managers too afraid to discuss race due to a fear of causing offense must discover a willingness to cut through the silence. According to a CMI/BAM report, only 54% of HR/diversity managers envisage their own business leaders as champions of diversity. Speaking this truth openly would be to find a new language for broaching the topic.
As ever, reform led by those currently in power has the potential to affect quicker and longer-lasting change. Senior leaders must create active spaces in which the voices of BAME employees are encouraged and heard without prejudice. Along with these forums, data must be actively compiled and be readily accessible to those looking to push forward change. Only once this data is logged and tracked will senior management be forced to take full accountability for their diversity targets.
It would not be helpful to underplay the significant progress made over recent years in regards to increasing BAME workplace representation. There is an ever-widening acceptance that ethnicity has no role to play in an individual’s ability to reach their full career potential. Far more needs to be done, however, to ensure an equal playing field. Take, for example, a recent study of 130 BAME and non-BAME women, in which 90% of BAME women said they felt it necessary to leave their culture behind in order to progress at their workplace. As long as BAME individuals are pressured to conform to a one-size-fits-all mono-identity in order to succeed, we know that serious work still needs to be done in illuminating and dismantling structural bias.
The keys to improvement are openness and communication. Discussion of race and its impact need not be taboo in the corridors and boardrooms of our workplaces. Leaders who sidestep the topic only deepen the silence inside which the BAME community has long learned to operate. Diversity is above all a strength, and when utilised correctly by forward-thinking companies, it can lead both to market success and fruitful career paths for ambitious BAME individuals.
Phil Nash is a correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors providing legal support for those seeking British Citizenship.