Racism at work – inclusive leaders must focus their attention and act

Racism at work – inclusive leaders must focus their attention and act

Jane Farrell is the co-founder and Chief Executive of EW Group. She is a specialist in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, organisational change and cultural adaptability.

Photo of a white women holding up a Black Lives Matter placard - wearing anti Covid mask

We need to focus.

The ways that inclusive leaders and managers recognise difference, and develop the cultural intelligence and skills to know how to dismantle systemic disadvantage and discrimination, have not fundamentally changed. However, it is time for all leaders – white leaders in particular – to focus on racism at work, and in broader society. Doing so will not detract from the importance of other issues, but now is the moment to focus our attention on this critical issue.

Recent events have galvanised action against racial injustices – leaders must act

Recent events have placed a terrible spotlight on why being an inclusive leader or manager should not be discretionary or something that only some demonstrate day in and day out. Whatever their seniority, we must demand all our managers practice equality, diversity, and inclusion, and ask for evidence of what they say and do to tackle it, day in and day out.

‘What precisely have you said and done to address institutionalised racism, and how are you measuring whether it’s working?’ is a good place to start. If staff cannot answer that question then it is the responsibility of the organisation to ensure everyone knows what actions they are required to take in their role, be they a supervisor, manager, or the CEO.

Countless events have thrown into focus that which has always been there. The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic communities, the video of a woman using her white privilege when calling the police to say ‘an African American’ man was threatening her when he asked her to put her dog on a lead, and the horrific killing of George Floyd by a white police officer whilst his colleagues stood idly by.

Racism known and experienced by Black communities has not gone away. Institutionalised racism is woven into our systems and organisations. White people benefit from it, whereas the Black community is disadvantaged by it.

How can leaders and managers deal with racism at work

For lasting change and equality to take hold within organisations, inclusive leaders and managers, particularly those that are white, must take action against racism – at work and beyond.

– Listen to what Black staff in and out of their organisations are saying about how the events above capture their lived experiences of micro and macro aggressions – in workplaces, in the criminal justice system, housing, and politics; keep listening

– Educate yourself rather than asking members of the Black community to explain things to you; it is our responsibility and there are plenty of brilliant articles and books available, such as Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, and Chris Lambert’s article, A Letter to my White Friends

– Do not say “it’s much worse over there than it is here”

– Do not say “All Lives Matter”

– Do not say “it’s better than it was”

– Deeply reflect on the privileges you enjoy because you are white (whether you want these benefits or not), and then think through how you can and should use your privilege to address systemic racism in measurable ways

– Ensure you do not let guilt get in the way; guilt does not deliver change

– Ensure all your staff are knowledgeable and skilled in recognising and tackling racism

– Require all leaders and managers to be able to provide professional leadership, on this alongside everything else

– Keep on listening to Black staff, respectfully and with humility

All truly inclusive leaders know that this work is not only needed when terrible events happen, but day in and day out. All great leadership and management require a sophisticated analysis of how racial advantage and disadvantage operates and the passion, commitment, and skill to make positive change.

Racism at work is not usually down to ‘bad apples’ – it’s systemic

We are often asked to help organisations when they have got something wrong. It might be that workplace racial harassment has been reported or come to light, that they have had a tribunal case regarding racial discrimination, or that they have used images that are racist and are in the middle of a media storm.

In all these cases, there is a serious piece of learning to be done to tackle the racism at work, whatever the presenting issue or the immediate action that is needed to right a wrong and recognise and acknowledge the hurt and damage that has been done to the Black community.

All too often an individual is blamed for the racist behaviour – as though everybody else and the organisation are not culpable. This is the ‘bad apple’ excuse, and it does not wash. The full idiom is ‘a bad apple spoils the barrel’, meaning the entire barrel is ruined and would, therefore, be discarded. We must consider any racism in the workplace as a symptom of the systems in place – an act of racism is facilitated by the business, and only by reviewing the entire ‘barrel’ can we ensure there are no ‘bad apples’.

As part of this process, it is critical that organisations ensure that managers and leaders reflect on the racial harassment and ask the following question:

“How do we support the person on the receiving end of this harassment, and act against the perpetrators?”

Some companies never get beyond this first question, but all that follow are equally important.

– What is it about our organisational culture that has allowed this racial harassment to occur?

– Why was the racist behaviour not ‘nipped in the bud’?

– How can we ensure that all staff really understand what is acceptable and unacceptable in the workplace, and be given the skills and confidence to challenge behaviours that do not reflect our values, or the law?

– What does this racist incident tell us about the understanding of equality, diversity and inclusion at executive and board level?

– How can we re-evaluate how we recruit and select, induct, and line manage, then weave what we have learnt about racism at work into all these processes?

– How do we revisit our management and leadership training to weave in what we have learnt?

– How do we communicate what we have learnt, what we have done as a result, and acknowledge the disproportionate impact of what the organisation got wrong on black staff?

– How do we design ongoing processes to collect data (which staff get disciplined, what proportion is black, and what does that tell us, for example), analyse it, report the results to all managers and leaders, and create action plans to address imbalances?

There are many articles talking about how complex addressing equality, diversity and inclusion is, racism in particular. In some ways these articles are true, but overall, addressing racism at work is not that complicated. It just takes a commitment to see how advantage and difference is playing out, and take specific practical actions, day in, day out, year in, year out. Particularly if, like me, you are white.

Contact our expert team for support and advice

Jane Farrell is the co-founder and Chief Executive of EW Group. She is a specialist in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, organisational change and cultural adaptability. Jane has vast experience in diversity consulting and training, specialising in working with senior management teams to improve individual, team and organisational performance. Jane has delivered large-scale diversity programmes for our high-profile client base, including London Underground which at the time was the UK's largest diversity management programme of its kind. Sign up to EW Group's monthly e-newsletter for industry updates, case studies, exclusive event invites and more!

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