Race equality: getting uncomfortable and sustaining change

What does a diverse business have that a less diverse one does not? How do organisations address race equality at work, and sustain it to deliver long-term benefits?

In this episode of the Acas Podcast we talk about these issues, and more.

Nike Siffre is joined by:

  • Susan Clews, Acas Chief Executive
  • Julie Dennis, Acas head of diversity and inclusion
  • Afifa Kiran, co-chair of the Acas race equality network and Acas workplace adviser

We discuss:

  • why you should invest in change and what's in it for organisations
  • making change long term, rather than tokenistic
  • how to handle uncomfortable conversations about race
  • tips for small businesses

Listen to the podcast

Subscribe to the Acas Podcast

Episode notes

You can:


Nike Siffre: Welcome to the Acas podcast. I'm Nike Siffre, part of the communications team here at Acas. We're here today to talk about making and – more importantly – sustaining real change when it comes to racial equality in the workplace.

I'm joined by Susan Clews, Acas Chief Executive Officer, Afifa Kiran, co-chair of the Acas race equality network and Acas workplace adviser, and Julie Dennis, Acas head of diversity and inclusion here at Acas. Thank you very much for joining me today. Welcome.

In July this year, our podcast on Black Lives Matter in the workplace explored how racism and inequality are experienced and persist. We discussed what white people – all people – need to do to be part of change, and what organisations and leaders need to do to be responsible for the change.

Today, we're continuing that conversation. I'm interested to learn how we can make our workplaces truly more equal, no matter whether those workplaces are small or large. And also, what advice you can share for when those conversations that need to happen get uncomfortable.

I thought I would start off with a simple yet very important question. Why change? What's in it for the organisation and for the individuals within that organisation to change? And what does a diverse workplace have that a less diverse workplace doesn't? Susan, could I ask for your thoughts first?

Susan Clews: Yes, definitely Nike. It's great to have the opportunity to talk today about what is such a big issue for every organisation I think race equality, and for our wider community as well. From an employer perspective, I kind of feel there's, it's still worth saying there's a moral dimension to this. It's just morally right, that we have diverse workplaces and fair and equal workplaces. And it feels a bit weird that we're still having to say that in 2020, so many years after the Equality Act. But also, it's much more than just meeting the legal requirements – I think as an employer, there are so many more reasons, and it gives you a real business advantage as well.

So let me unpack that a bit. I think it's about having a representative workforce. Because that real rich diversity within your organisation helps you meet and understand the communities you serve, or the customers you're trying to reach. Because it's about having diverse culture, diverse skills and experience, and that helps you meet your customer needs. It's also about talent, and this means an awful lot to me, as a chief executive, I want an organisation where I've got the very best ideas, skills and experience. And by ignoring the talents of the BAME community, people with disabilities or trans workers, then we're losing a massive talent pool, and who can afford to do that? So I think that's a really strong reason, we all want to attract the very, very best talent we can do. And so we need to have cultures and role models within our organisations to attract talented BAME employees as well.

I think the other thing, though, is that it's absolutely clear that where you are committed to diversity, and then you actually translate that into action, it matters to everybody in your workforce as well. So I know in Acas, we started doing work, during the summer on our race action plan, white colleagues approached me saying, "I'm really glad you're working on this, because it's important to us that you respect everybody in the organisation".

And just finally, let me come on to business outcomes. Because I know a lot of businesses are pushed for time, margins are tight, and so you want to know that this is having an impact on the bottom line too. But there's really good and solid evidence that it does. Just a couple of bits of data from me – some recent research showed that organisations with an ethnically diverse management team have nearly 20% higher revenues due to greater innovation. Now, that's pretty compelling evidence for me as a CEO. So the evidence is out there. There are so many reasons why this is a good thing to do. So really looking forward to the conversation about how to do it in our businesses.

Nike: Thank you. Afifa, I wondered about your perspective on this. You represent colleagues from within the workplace, in your role as co-chair of the race equality network. So what would you say in terms of this point of “why change”?

Afifa Kiran: I think from an employee perspective, you know, if you have staff who are from ethnic minorities, who feel a real belonging to the organisation, they feel that they're heard, then you're going to get real engagement from them. So whether that's your ethnic minority staff and all staff from any background feel that they're welcomed within the organisation, that their needs are going to be accommodated, you know, their backgrounds are celebrated, and at the very least, their grievances are genuinely heard, then ultimately the organisation is going to be able to retain its very, very talented staff. And if your people are flourishing, then the organisation is going to flourish.

Nike: Thank you. So there's a very strong argument in terms of why a business would invest in this important area and really drive change in this important area. Yet, it strikes me that often, organisations might not know where to start – potentially small organisations that are looking for a meaningful way to begin. But also, very importantly, there are going to be those organisations who might say, we already had a plan in place, we've been trying to take action, yet our issues are about how we make that change in the long term. And we're facing difficulty, we're facing challenge, maybe even push-back. So how do we help organisations to begin, but as importantly, continue and sustain that change? Julie?

Julie Dennis: Do you know, that's a really interesting question. I know a lot of people don't like change, you know, and I hear people say, you know, this isn't fair, actually, it's not fair that my organisation is now focusing on race equality, what about me? And for those organisations who are nervous and are worried of the push back, the first piece of advice I would say to those organisations is get your narrative right, you know, what, where's your evidence to begin with? So for those of us that have got those workforce figures, look at what do those figures say, if for those that haven't got that information, then that might be a starter, to actually survey your staff and find out how they identify, because then that will give you an indication of where your gaps are in regards to representation, or how you're recruiting or progressing.

And once you've got that narrative, I think it's about explaining to everybody why this is important. And being really honest, and saying, you know, in the past, there's been structures in this organisation that we feel may have put people at a disadvantage. So I think for organisations that are starting from scratch, get your narrative right. For those who have been on this journey for a longer time, it's about sitting back and reviewing what's worked really well, and what's not worked as well, and is there a reason for that? Talk to your employees. At Acas that's one of the things we've done, we've gone out, and have worked very closely with Afifa and our other network chair Rachel, to actually talk to our staff and say, “What do you think we're missing here?” “What can we do?” And also, “how can you help us?”, because we're all in this together and it's about all of us making that positive change in organisations.

Nike: What struck me though, is that it's about all levels of the organisation and I was curious to ask, Susan, at board level, when you're trying to make something systemic and sustainable in this way – what advice would you give to organisations who are maybe coming up against problems or challenges in making this important change long-term?

Susan: Yeah, that's a good question Nike, and I absolutely can identify with organisations where there's a busy agenda. I mean, at the moment, organisations are going through massive change just to survive. And it's easy to push issues like diversity down your agenda, I get that. But as a board member, myself, as a chief executive, I'd say that's a really dangerous short-term approach.

I think Julie hit the nail on the head here in that in terms of getting airtime for diversity, and really influencing senior leaders, I would put a lot of emphasis on data. So boards can get uncomfortable sometimes thinking, “Is this an issue? Is it something we really need to tackle right now?” Because there's lots of other challenges, and, you know, “If we favour one group of employees, they might see it that, you know, other people will feel unhappy”, and change is tricky, as Julie said.

My experience has been, it's so much easier if you've got good quality data, and you can persuade your board that there are things happening within your organisation that just aren't good. You know, the percentage of board members, look at the proportion of senior leaders from minority ethnic backgrounds, and usually the data speaks for itself and it makes getting that narrative together for board so much easier. The other thing that I found pretty compelling in organisations is when you talk to staff and hear how they feel, BAME staff in particular, how does it feel in this organisation right now, and the words of staff are very, very powerful. Because it's really hard as a white senior leader, I can't put myself in the shoes of a more junior BAME member of staff. So I need to give employees a voice so that I understand better what it's like working across the organisation. So I think get good metrics, get the data together, and allow your staff voice to be shared amongst senior leaders. And usually that makes a pretty compelling argument about why activity needs to be done, and then reinforce it with those business outcomes, which your business will benefit from.

I think the other thing is, it's about taking steps, you can't do everything at once, but signalling a really firm commitment, and then taking action and maybe just 2 or 3 things to get started will be important. You can't do everything at once, I accept that. So some simple steps, monitor, review, then take some more steps is probably my best advice.

Nike: Afifa, I was struck by what Susan was saying there about staff voices, thinking, myself, in my experience, about how actually what's interesting is how do organisations respond, particularly when the conversations begin to get uncomfortable? What's your perspective on how we can make this change, not just tokenistic, but truly, truly sustainable and systemic within an organisation?

Afifa: That's a really good question. And I think where things have gone wrong, the organisation should put its hands up and say, “Yeah, you know, we've got that wrong, but we want to make changes”, and I think, where an organisation actually takes ownership, perhaps apologises, but also celebrates the successes. And I think sometimes we don't emphasise the successes that an organisation, the objectives that it achieves in, for example, in its race equality plans that they have or their D and I strategies. But where there is pushback, I think, the organisation needs to reflect why, you know, is it there is a lack of resourcing in the organisation for colleagues to get onboard, or is the organisation not giving enough time for initiatives?

Sometimes, there's really simple ways of getting voices heard. And one of those ways that I would say is, for example, reverse mentoring. You know, reverse mentoring is a really, really great way for ethnic minority staff to share their lived experience with colleagues, with colleagues who haven't faced the obstacles, and perhaps the discrimination that ethnic minority colleagues have faced. And when you have that one-to-one chat, when you have that, that experience, when you're hearing those stories, I think that's when, you know, you'll get that 'a-ha' moment, you know, with your senior leadership team.

Nike: I wonder if any of you have had that moment where, you know, you really were getting pushback, or you were facing that uncomfortable conversation, and you know, how you dealt with that?

Julie: I fully understand when people turn around to me, and when they say, "oh, I don't think this is fair", I think, you know, sometimes, first of all, you need to actually sit down and have a conversation with that individual, because you do not know what that individual has experienced, you know, they could have experienced something years ago, that has really impacted on how they view the subject of race in the workplace. So I think the first thing is have that conversation to unpick, as to why that person feels like that. And again explain – give people the facts and also say, be part of this journey with us. Because what I found is some of those people that really didn't understand it, if they take part in an initiative, like Afifa said reverse mentoring, those individuals I've seen have been the best allies at the end of the day, because they again, can speak openly and honestly about “Actually, I didn't get this. I didn't used to think it was fair. But then I realised x, y and z.” And actually they are better at educating people about why this is important. So I think my first tip to people is, do not jump down at people if they say, “I don't understand” or “I don't think it's fair”, because if you do that, you will just stop people speaking and then everything will go underground in your organisation and then you'll have that bubbling culture of people feeling that things just aren't quite right. And again, that's not a healthy culture to have in any organisation.

Nike: Afifa, you must have had a lot of uncomfortable conversations in your role as a network chair. What did you want to say?

Afifa: So many stories, but just kind of one particular incident, it's really, really easy to kind of say to people you're having a difficult conversation with, “Well, you know, yeah, no, forget it, I'm not going speak to you, or we're just going to ignore them”. But when you do hear comments, or you do get some, quote unquote, feedback on a D and I strategy, for example, I always think the best way is to have a conversation. And this happened to me within a particular organisation where we were running some interview panels, and there was, you know, there was an initiative to always have, or try to always have, a BAME member of staff on the interview panel. And a colleague said to me, "Well, if that's the case, then we should have someone who's from the LGBTQ network, or someone who's from the disability network, and the list is endless, and how many people that you're going to have on that particular panel of interviewers", and I sat that person down, and we had a real conversation. And, by the end of it, I could see that "A-ha" moment. So it's really important that we take the time to sit down with our colleagues, with anyone who has criticism, and not just think about ignoring them. I think that that's the easy way out.

Susan: I think I've learnt over the years, actually, I've mellowed, that there are different ways aren't there, of influencing people. With a lot of situations where you're trying to influence somebody’s thinking, it's less about telling them, more about having that conversation, and even asking questions to people. So I've sometimes said, “You know, I don't want you to feel threatened, and that you to feel you're at a disadvantage at all, you know, if you're a white man, your career is really important, too. And we want to support you. But just look at the data here, you know, if we've got a real lack of black senior leaders, is that good for the organisation? What is that saying to people who are joining the organisation, who will feel that maybe they're not welcome, or they're not welcome to progress through the organisation?” And by asking those questions, and people kind of usually come around to the view that actually isn't acceptable to do nothing. And that by helping particular groups within the organisation, you're not blocking opportunities for other people as well. So I think it is really trying to understand what's behind those challenges and those questions.

Unless, of course, it gets to a position where somebody is saying what might be really unhelpful, negative things about diversity activities. And then I think, as a leader or anybody in the organisation, you have a responsibility to say, “Actually, I find those opinions offensive, that isn't in line with our commitment to diversity.” So there is that situation where if you get those extreme comments, they need to be dealt with as well, because you can't, you can't, on the one hand, be committed to diversity and then on the other hand, say it's fine to have racist comments within your organisation. So my general approach is, yes, be supportive, listen, encourage people to see the other side of the argument. But there might be a time when you have to take a firm line, stand up for the organisation's values and policies.

Julie: I wanted to again, agree with what Susan's just said. You know, organisations need to have very clear policies that set out what behaviour is not tolerated, and what will happen, as a consequence. And again, in my experience, you normally only have to deal with one person, before the rest of the crowd get to realise, actually, they do take this seriously and I need to actually re-establish how I see things. And unfortunately, for some people, it may be having to have that conversation of, actually your values do not fit the values of our organisation, so it may be best that we part company, and you go work somewhere that has the same values as you. And I think that's perfectly reasonable as well for an organisation to do that.

Nike: It is clear, what you're explaining to me, this is a serious business, which has a serious impact on people's lives. We at Acas, we advise and support businesses of all shapes and sizes. What would we say to a small business owner who asks “Well, you know, how can I be part of this change? What's it got to do with me?"

Susan: It's a good question, isn't it, and as a small firm owner, you've got a whole range of issues that you're bothered about and take your attention. And, I mean, the basic arguments are still the same whether you’re bigger or a smaller firm. And but as a small firm, you'll want to keep your response proportionate. So it's focusing on maybe the couple of things that might make a difference within your business. And sometimes small firms are already great at diversity, because already, sometimes there's that notion that everybody's kind of part of the business and there's a really strong team ethos and people know each other personally. So small firms can sometimes be really, really strong in this area, I think, just by the fact that everyone's connected across the business. But where that's not the case, I think, again, it's look at some of the practices. Talk to your staff, and that's easier sometimes in a small firm to find out what's happening and how people feel in the organisation. Certainly in Acas we've got good tools and tips on our website about things you can do. So we absolutely understand if you're a small firm, you don't want a policy that's 20 pages long and complicated. Just keep to some principles and some action points within the organisation. So keep it simple, I think is my advice there.

Nike: Thank you. We're coming to the end of our time. And I just wanted to – I'm really struck that all of your experience is so varied and so rich – and I wondered if there might be one final thing, in terms of making a difference, making a change in this area? Julie?

Julie: My advice would be how important being an ally can be in this space. We should no longer leave this journey to our ethnic minority colleagues.

Afifa: For me, I think, you know, there's, we've been having this conversation for a long time. And we've always kind of been told, and we understand that change doesn't happen overnight. But I think now is the time for change, you know, you know, there's no better moment than the present moment. So let's get working.

Susan: I think probably one of the biggest things I've learned in this area, Nike, is to be a bit humble, actually, and to stop trying to pretend that everything is right in an organisation. As a chief executive, you know, it's quite hard accepting things aren't always as good as they could be. But a bit of humility and accepting that things aren't always as good as they should be, and that actually, you might not personally have all the ideas and solutions at your fingertips as well. And recognising there are other people who, not only have the skills and capability to help you with the journey, but who are passionate about this and can just bring so much to helping senior leaders make a difference. So be a bit humble, you're not alone, and make the most of the talent you've got around you to help change the agenda.

Nike: I really, really value all of your insights. And what's really clear is that if organisations, if individuals, if employees, if employers, are prepared to and can see the benefits of all being part of this change, even when it means getting uncomfortable, that it's not only the right thing to do, but something that will help to grow us as individuals and as organisations. So I thank you so much for your insight and for sharing your valuable experiences with us today. Julie, Susan, Afifa, thank you.

Julie, Susan, Afifa: Thank you, bye Nike, thank you.

This has been the Acas podcast. We have put some useful links about tackling race inequality in the workplace in the episode notes, and that includes a free webinar. Also, we're here to help. We have Acas advisers who can support you in the workplace challenges you might face, and we've put the link to that number in the notes too. Thanks for listening.