Why workplace diversity is everyone’s business

Image of Sandra Kerr OBE

Sandra Kerr OBE, Race Equality Director, Business in the Community


I spoke at a Westminster Briefing event on the role of organisational culture in supporting Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people in the workplace. Whilst we know from our Gender and Race Benchmark and previous research that there are a number of actions that have a positive impact on BAME representation within organisations, these approaches are more likely to succeed when they are built into company culture rather than carried out in isolation. But it requires action at all levels of an organisation to ensure success.

One of the key issues in workplace culture for addressing BAME under-representation is tackling unconscious bias. Sadly, it continues to be present at each stage of the recruitment process, with fewer BAME men and women making it through to shortlists for roles and being hired.  We know that at times individuals recruit people who are ‘like me’, people that ‘I’m used to’, and people that ‘I’m comfortable with’. If there are no diverse people involved in that selection process or the people doing the selecting don’t know anybody who is slightly different, these can be potential barriers to selection and progression.

The process of cultural change can seem overwhelming, but what is crucial is that there is strong leadership and a commitment to embed action and commitment into strategy in order to implement it successfully.

Whilst there has been an increase in organisations taking part in the Benchmark providing unconscious bias training to recruiters, not all employers are making it mandatory, yet our Benchmark shows that employers which provide mandatory unconscious bias training for recruiters are more likely to have similar application to hiring rates for both BAME and white candidates. Monitoring, target setting and tracking are also important as they enable employers to easily identify where the problems are, identify any disproportionate dropout rates and take steps to address them.

Senior leaders also have a key role to play in increasing BAME representation within their organisations. Our 'Race at the Top'  report suggests that just one in 16 senior management roles are held by BAME people, yet they make up one in 10 of the workforce and one in eight of the working age population – a significant gap. However, we know that placing responsibility for meeting diversity objectives on board members and senior leaders, linking performance related pay to these objectives and engaging senior leaders in reverse and reciprocal mentoring and sponsorship programmes can have a significant impact on increasing BAME representation, and would encourage all employers to use these strategies. 

But just encouraging senior leaders and managers to take action to address these issues is not enough; there also needs to be a reason why. Gathering evidence as to why employers should bother about diversity and inclusion is vital in supporting this and creating a culture shift. Employee surveys can play a role in highlighting different engagement levels and addressing feelings of inclusion and exclusion across the different groups in a workplace.  Employee networks – which are open to everyone who is an ally, not just those from BAME backgrounds and encourage line manager participation – can also help to build engagement from the wider workforce. Additionally, involving employees from all backgrounds in an open conversation on diversity and inclusion and making them aware of the current picture and sharing goals and actions across units and teams can have a significant impact.

The process of cultural change can seem overwhelming, but what is crucial is that there is strong leadership and a commitment to embed action and commitment into strategy in order to implement it successfully. If senior leaders and managers are engaging all staff in the conversation, actively involving themselves in opportunities to engage with staff from diverse backgrounds, and developing plans to address any gaps in BAME representation within their organisation, then the transition is much more likely to succeed. And, in turn, increasing diversity in the workplace will benefit not just individuals, but better policy making and benefit business and society as a whole.