Black Lives Matter: the workplace

In this episode of the Acas Podcast, we share insights into what organisations and individuals can do to make our workplaces truly more equal.

We're joined by:

  • Rachel Rockson, chair of Acas's Race Equality Network
  • Julie Dennis, head of diversity and inclusion at Acas

We discuss:

  • how racism and inequality are experienced and persist
  • what white people need to do to be part of change
  • what intersectionality is and why it matters
  • what organisations and leaders need to do to be responsible for change
  • how investing and committing to equality benefits everyone

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This is a conversation about Black Lives Matter and the workplace between Sarah Guthrie, Acas communications manager, Rachel Rockson, chair of Acas’s Race Equality Network and Julie Dennis, Acas head of diversity and inclusion.

Sarah Guthrie: Welcome to the Acast Podcast. I'm Sarah Guthrie, part of the communications team here at Acas And today I'm here with Rachel Rockson, chair of our Race Equality Network, and she also works on our helpline, and Julie Dennis, head of diversity and inclusion at Acas. Thanks for joining me today.

Rachel Rockson: Thank you for having us.

Sarah: Today, we're talking about racism, particularly in the light of the tragic death of George Floyd in the US, and the way that that has highlighted, through Black Lives Matter, racism in our own country. I'm really aware that we're only scratching the surface in the short podcast. But I've been really looking forward to talking to you both Rachel and Julie about what organisations and individuals can do to make our workplaces truly more equal.

But let's start off first with exploring the problem. So from your roles in Acas, how do you see racism showing up? Rachel, do you want to kick us off?

Rachel: As an Acas helpline adviser, we are on the front line and we are usually the first port of call for people who feel that they're having difficulties to do with racial issues in their workplace. When it comes to the systematic mindset, the issue is, well what I find in my experience as a helpline adviser is, those that are being discriminated against, until recently, found it a little bit difficult to come forward to ask for help, because there was this stigma against playing the race card if there's something going on in the workplace that they feel has got an underlying race element.

From a personal perspective, what I find is, sometimes an individual may take action from a well meaning place. A typical experience for me: I am a black woman and I have a bit of an accent. So sometimes in a social gathering when I start talking to people who don't know me, the reaction I usually get is "oh my gosh, you speak very good English". Now, that person may not mean any negativity by that comment. When you analyse the comment, really, it could have come from a good place, it could have been meant as a compliment.

But when you drill right down into it, you find that maybe there is that underlying unconscious bias that may have led to them making such a comment. I usually use that as an opportunity to start a conversation. To make the individual aware what may have triggered the comment in the first place, and to give them the opportunity to bring the potential unconscious bias into the consciousness. So my response usually to that is “thank you, so do you”. And then we start a conversation from that.

Sarah: Mmm. So people don't come forward because of the fear of playing the race card, as you put it. And in your own life, you've experienced what might seem as good intentions to mask a bias, and actually, you personally take that as an opportunity to open a conversation about that, which is pretty incredible. Julie, what have you seen as head of diversity and inclusion? I know you're often out and about talking to companies about this.

Julie Dennis: For me, I think the whole issue of institutional racism is still not really understood by a lot of individuals and a lot of organisations. You know, I've been working in this field for over 20 years and I've been championing race equality within organisations. And I've seen that a lot of organisations have this perception that there is no longer an issue around race because we're seeing people from minority ethnic backgrounds in senior roles in organisations. And I think there's been this perception that everything's okay in the world. And I think for me, we were already seeing how unequal the world was. And COVID-19, I think, has really highlighted that. I've not been surprised to see how this pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on individuals from minority ethnic backgrounds in the UK. It's just reinforced that we have a long – a long, long – way to go.

Sarah: So on that, what can we as individuals do to make progress to make our workplaces and our society more equal and inclusive? And how can we do that well?

Rachel: This may sound like a bit of a cliché, but talking helps. One of my best friends – well, she's now one of my best friends – we had hit things off when we started working together. But somewhere down the line there seemed to have been a bit of friction. And it turned out that there were certain barriers that she had. She thought it might be offensive if she referred to me as 'black'. So she didn't know whether to refer to me as 'coloured' etc, when she had to use some sort of description for me. I didn't know there were barriers for her.

So it wasn't until she came out and told me that, we had a very frank conversation. And it was just a matter of talking for two minutes and our relationship got back on track. And we are now best friends. So sometimes talking and trying to address any concerns that somebody has about potential barriers might actually break down that barrier. So it could turn out that those may not be buried at all. So yes, please, let's talk.

Julie: I'd completely agree with that, Rachel. I think also as a white woman, I think it's a time for us to listen. To actually sit back and listen and have that conversation with our colleagues, and hear what they have been saying, for a long, long time. We need to really understand now what this concept is all about. And for some of us, that's going to be really difficult.

And what I found interesting over the last couple of weeks, is the amount of people that really have an issue when we start having that conversation around 'white privilege'. Because the natural reaction for people when they hear that is for them to say: "Well, I've not had privilege, you know, I've had to work hard where I've got to."

And when we’re talking about white privilege, we're not talking about that. You know, it's about recognising that, again, as a society everything is geared towards individuals who are white. And it comes down to recognising that our friends and our colleagues that are from minority ethnic backgrounds have a completely different experience in the UK. And that can be down to something really simple.

Me and Rachel actually was talking about this the other day – weren't we, Rachel – when we talked about when we get clothing and someone says let's have flesh coloured clothing. Well, flesh for me is completely different to Rachel. And I shared an example with Rachel the other day that you know, next month it's my beautiful daughter's birthday. She's getting older, makes me feel older, but I will not be able to get a birthday card that has a proper photo or image of a mother and daughter. Because you go into any high street shop – especially where I live in the north of England – all of those images are of a white woman and a white child holding hands. And I would love to be able to buy a picture that actually is of a white woman with a mixed race child, holding her, because that is my reality.

One of my heroes actually in the diversity world, Jane Elliott, who's an American diversity specialist, always says you can never understand someone’s reality until you walk in their shoes. So listening to the experience of your black, Asian and other ethnic minority colleagues will give you a greater insight into what the world is like. And then it is our role to step up and make that change happen. Because, you know, we need to step up to the plate now and make this change happen. And we need to do that in the right way, in a constructive way. And education and listening and talking is a great way to do that.

Sarah: So speaking of action, there's a danger that white people, white leaders don't take responsibility, perhaps a temptation for the work to fall on black people or Asian people or the people who do not hold the privilege can make it easier to act. So how can organisations do this well?

Julie: What I see, and I've seen over the years when we go into companies, is the first thing that a company will say is "We've got X amount of people who are from this background working for our organisation". Just like they'll tell you how many people with disabilities they've got, and how many women they've got in senior roles and like, it's like, job done, we've done it. I think the issue that a lot of employers do, they just see their equality is about how many people you have, not about what are the systematic structures within your organisation that are preventing you progressing in your diversity and inclusion journey.

And I think one big tip I'd give a lot of employers, take a step back. This is not just about how many people but also, what is the culture? What is it really like working here? Are we actually seeing in some pockets of our business that actually when someone from a minority ethnic background goes and works in that department, they only stay there for 6 to 12 months, and then all of a sudden they move? Or are we actually seeing that more minority ethnic individuals are leaving the business full stop, in comparison to their white counterparts? They're all trends that tell you there may be a problem here and there may be a cultural issue.

Rachel: Just to build on that, I find that in my experience anyway, having consistent education in place helps. Because like Julie had said before, when you have got a culture that has been consistently ingrained over centuries, it doesn't take just a day’s, or maybe a Black History Month event to change that mindset. So any educational tools that the employer puts in place has to be continuous and consistent across the board to ensure that the managers of these people are aware what their duties are. And the fact that they could maybe do a little bit more, when they spot talent, to try and encourage the staff to really step out of their comfort zone and, potentially, maybe do something more to try to address some of the issues to do with under-representation, and hopefully to get on to a more equal playing field for everybody.

There is also an additional resource that employers could utilise effectively. And having been a lead of that resource – and that is the only word that I can use for it, it's a very powerful resource – of staff networks. Now, these are made up of staff. They know the experience they have in the workplace, they experience the culture on a daily basis. They may have some really good ideas, good and simple ideas, on how to address racism in the workplace, or maybe try to change the culture. So staff networks are a really good source of information and a resource that could be utilised to drive positive change. 

It could be a safe platform that individuals could access to voice any concerns that they may have, if they are not able to discuss it with their manager or with colleagues. They could also suggest ways in which this issue could be addressed. There may be others who may not be in a position to speak up who might benefit. And it could also go some way towards enhancing the employer’s image and potentially the output of the employees would be increased as a result of becoming a more engaged workforce.

Sarah: Mmm, Rachel, from your experience of running the network at Acas, what advice would you give to someone looking to set up or reinvigorate a network?

Rachel: It just takes one person with passion for equality to get it going. And my experience from chairing of previous networks is it is hard work if you have a culture in a workplace where there isn't that… openness, almost? That if an individual recognises, that is the first step - if they recognise that this is a resource that we can utilise, and we can all work towards achieving the equalities is each individual person's responsibility to do their bit, then any individual no matter your grade, etc. I mean, I am leading the Acas Race Equality Network, and I'm not a senior member of staff, but I'm having to liaise with senior members of staff to try and get as much input into policy etc. And this is all based on input from the network. So it's helpful if a senior member of staff could be identified, who might be, maybe a champion or, you know, somebody to coach and mentor this individual, and try and connect them, expand their network, as it were. By expanding their network, I mean, maybe put them in touch with other people. 

When I first started on my first race equality network chair role, that was the first big break that I had: having someone who was passionate, a senior leader who was passionate about race equality. And all she did was put me in touch with others when I needed to get maybe some issues raised or some policy loopholes addressed, etc. She would go to them and she would say, "This person can help you and that person can't," and all she did was send an email to various individuals introducing them, introducing me, and telling them what it was that I needed. And the individuals that got back in touch with me straight away. Now, because she was senior, there was that authority that she was lending to the voice that I had. It had an impact - it had a huge big impact. And we were able to achieve a lot as a result of her input.

What then happened was... that was the first step to setting up a network. We set up the network, senior leaders became more engaged, they were able to release staff to participate and become more engaged. And that led to, when it came to staff survey time, it led to a big jump in the survey results. People were also becoming a lot more enthusiastic in the workplace. So you could see the whole culture of the place had changed somewhat, because people now felt free to speak – within reason! [laughs] And know that whatever they had to contribute would be treated as a valuable contribution.

Sarah: That's great. So only takes one person with passion, and a senior sponsor really helps. What about from your experience in HR, Julie? 

Julie: Where I see some organisations get it wrong is they will set up a network. But then they don't think about, first of all, giving that network the time and space to be able to do that job. They give it part of a person who's got 99 other things to do. It is not as simple as "right, we'll set up a race network, we've got a chair, we've got a vice chair, right, crack on, get on with it and leave them." You've got to, just like a plant, you have to make sure it's watered and it's nourished and it's cared for. And if you do all those three simple things, you will have a fantastic network and you will reap the benefits of that hard work that you've had to put in at the beginning.

Sarah: That's great. What about employers who might be reluctant to do anything because they're perhaps embarrassed about where they are? They don't have a great record. What would you say to them?

Rachel: No one's perfect. And so from my perspective, we can't change the past. So if we haven't been doing this in the past, then we could learn from what detriment that may have caused or indeed from other organisations who may have done it successfully. You can't obviously go back in time and change what had happened in the past, but we can start from now and make a brand new ending.

So taking action now is going to affect what happens in future. So now's the time that this opportunity has become available. So you could consider utilising it and taking action to ensure that equality elements of your organisation are addressed and your staff get all the benefits. As well as your business actually get all the benefits from having an engaged and diverse workforce.

Julie: I'd also like to just add to that what we're doing in Acas is we're actually using what's happened as a way for us to just step back for a little bit and to reflect on, what have we done so far. what's worked well, what's not worked so well, and why hasn't that worked so well. And learn from some of those mistakes. To then, like Rachel said, to move forward and actually do things and maybe accelerate some of that, that work. So I think, you know, for companies out there, you know, don't beat yourselves up too much. I know there's some great practice out there that companies are doing. But don't just sit there on your laurels and go “we don't need to focus on it” either. It's about time for reflection. Time for us to see what's worked well, what hasn't worked well. And let's have a refocus.

Sarah: Thank you both. That's great. So now is the time to create a new ending. And even for those with strategies already in place, it's a really good time to step back, reflect on what's working and what's not, to accelerate change. I wondered if we could touch briefly on intersectionality, which is a word I'd heard of before I joined Acas, but I didn't really understand what it meant. Julie, what is it and why does it matter?

Julie: So for me, it's, it's common sense. Let's take race for example, people from different ethnic minority backgrounds will be men and women. Some of them will have disabilities, some of them will not. Some of them will be heterosexual, or gay or lesbian or bisexual. Some of them will be trans, some of them will be intersex. Some of them will have different religions. And to me, that is what the human race is all about. And that is what this subject is all about. So I think again, for those organisations that are on this journey and looking at race equality, think about the different layers of that.

An experience of an individual from a minority ethnic background who is male will be different from someone who is female, will be different for someone who has a disability, because the inequality that comes along with those different ‘protected characteristics’, as we call them, are the ones that layer on. 

And, you know, I remember having a conversation with my sister-in-law once, and she said to me she doesn't know whether the inequality she faces is because she's a woman, or if it's because she's a black woman. She does not know. And actually, to her, it does not matter. The fact is, she wants the inequality to stop and she wants to be able to be seen as an individual, and be able to grow and flourish. So I think it's very dangerous for organisations to just look through that lens. 

So again, as part of what we're doing in the race equality space at the minute, we've also been having those conversations with our LGBT+ network about "so, what does that mean in the context of sexual orientation? And with our Disability and You network, "so, what does that mean in the context of disability?"

Rachel: The points that she raised are very relevant, because when you're talking about overlapping protected characteristics, obviously culture has an impact. And if there is a workforce who come from a specific culture and sort of fall into more than one of those protected characteristics, then having the cultural knowledge as an employer to be able to address any issues that may arise, and have the intelligence to be able to recognise signs when they start developing, might go some way towards addressing any inequalities in the workplace.

When it comes to leaders, like Julie said, it's not good enough, I feel, for leaders to say "right, we have got a network and there you go – go and do whatever you have to do". That commitment is required for the network to become an engaged network. And it's only when the network becomes an engaged network that you start reaping the rewards, as Julie said. So if an employer is wanting to take action in the workplace to address any inequalities, then, from my perspective, it is beneficial if there is a clear cut strategy in place and commitment and, rather importantly, budget. [laughs] There is a specific budget allocated to it. That would help make whatever is going on – the education, the coaching, etc – it would help make it consistent and potentially embed it in the existing culture. And that would go towards changing the culture for the better.

Sarah: Thank you, Rachel. It's interesting you say budget there, because I have to ask a question I don't really want to ask at this point. But in the current context of coronavirus, and lots of organisations feeling very financially strapped, what would you say to employers who are listening to this and thinking, "you know what, this all sounds great, but there is no way that I can devote time and attention to that when my business is about to fail." What would you say to that?

Rachel: Where you have an engaged, diverse team, the productivity, the profitability of your business, it's been proven to be enhanced. So investing in equality and diversity and committing to it, even during difficult times, I don't think it will detract from the long term prospects of the business. I think it would enhance it, if anything.

Sarah: Thank you, Rachel. And on that really positive note about how good diversity is for organisations and how we can measure that, let's sum up.

We've talked about talking and how important that is, listening, particularly for white colleagues, and taking action. And for organisations, that means looking deeply at your culture and what it really feels like and resourcing your staff networks with budget. And we also touched very briefly on the idea of intersectionality, the different layers that privilege and discrimination can have.

We'll put some links to further resources in the session notes for this episode. All that remains is to say thank you so much, Rachel and Julie, for sharing your expertise and insight today. Thank you. 

This has been the Acas podcast. If you'd like to give us any feedback, we'd love to hear from you. You can email us at Thanks for listening.