BAME career progression: tips on tackling barriers in the workplace

Roy Bean knows the effort to carve out a successful career in workplaces still not quite up to par on BAME career progression

My final year at university was a gruelling time; I struggled to make ends meet and put food in the fridge. Despite turbulent circumstances, I was able to maintain an unwavering determination and successfully complete my degree.

I entered the job market with a quiet confidence that my 2:1 qualification would be a guaranteed ticket to securing a graduate position with a prestigious company. As I began making job applications, I soon realised that I was competing against hordes of people, the harsh realities of candidate selection processes slapped me in the face like a frosty blizzard.

My initial interview performances were cagey; I was so afraid of blowing opportunities that I became overly focussed on telling my interviewers what I thought they wanted to hear and failed to convey my personality. After numerous knockbacks, I eventually developed a decent technique and finessed my rapport building skills. 

I eventually secured my first ‘proper’ job as a trainee surveyor at a housing association. A lot of time has passed since then; I am now a self-employed contractor and have been fortunate enough to work for leading private and public sector organisations.

A lack of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) representation in leadership positions is something that I have witnessed throughout my career journey. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development published a report during 2017 on Barriers to BAME employee career progression. The report highlighted that around 14% of the UK working-age population come from BAME backgrounds, and by 2030, it is projected the proportion will be closer to 20%.

British workers from BAME backgrounds in the UK show high levels of ambition and motivation. More than three-quarters of BAME employees describe themselves as ambitious and say that business and career progression are important. Yet, there is a significant lack of racial diversity at the top of UK organisations. Everyone should have equal access to work and the opportunity to reach their potential, regardless of identity, background, or circumstance. So, what is behind this discrepancy?

The following are some of the barriers that can limit the aspirations and success of BAME staff:

Unequal access to promotions, projects and secondments

BAME employees who do not have access to leaders and decision-makers can find their career development stifled. This scenario can prevent BAME employees from having a voice that is heard, it can prevent access to the information required for success, it can prevent productive links to other co-workers and management, and it can hinder opportunities to contribute and advance professionally. It is vital for leaders to use their influence by including BAME candidates’ names when development and progression opportunities are being discussed.

An unequal racial equality strategy

Many organisations limit themselves by placing diversity and inclusion strategies solely within the remit of HR or corporate responsibility activities. By placing responsibilities for equality, diversity and inclusion under the HR function alone, leaders effectively negate full accountability at a companywide level. Any organisation with a serious commitment to diversity and inclusion should have accountability across every business function and each employee.

 Unconscious bias and discrimination

Unconscious bias has a negative impact on an organisation’s ability to attract a diverse candidate base. It also has the potential to damage brand image, reputation and trust. By recognising how bias can negatively affect recruitment, those involved in the process can avoid unconscious bias in their decision making.

Creating and equal and fair workplace means:

  • Appointing staff based on merit, blind to any factors other than the individual’s ability to do the job.
  • Forming a diverse workforce comprising talented people from diverse backgrounds.
  • Operating in an inclusive and open environment, where everyone can draw on their talents and experiences to identify new and better ways of working.

Nominate board-level diversity champions in each department

A diversity champion is a person within a business who is responsible for instilling a diverse and accepting workplace culture. Their role is important in helping to reduce discrimination and creating an inclusive work environment.

Develop leadership and management skills

Implement coaching and mentoring initiatives for under-represented groups using the following process:

  • Candidate joins expert to observe, ask questions and generally follow what they do.
  • Candidate records the process they observe.
  • Candidate starts doing the job while the expert observes, guides and answers questions.
  • Candidate goes solo when both mentor and mentee agree a sufficient skill level has been reached

Staff appraisals should always incorporate continuous and professional development as one of the key areas of assessment. The appraisals of a line manager should incorporate how well the manager performs in the implementation of race equality strategies.

Review and address recruitment practices that can act as a barrier to some groups

Some line managers approach their friends to assist them in interviews; this raises issues around impartiality and fairness. A potential solution is to develop a system whereby HR randomly appoints the chair for all interview panels. The chair is responsible for ensuring no unnecessary barriers have been placed by the line manager and vets the essential criteria of an advert ahead of publication.

The time for change is now

The Times published an article during October 2020 which highlighted that Aviva, Microsoft UK, Deloitte UK and Linklaters where among the first signatories to back a campaign to get more Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority staff into senior positions. Only time will tell if the growing list of companies that have publicly pledged to build more diverse leadership teams show signs that they are actively introducing credible measures to level the playing field.

BAME career progression

By Roy Bean, Chartered procurement professional and founder of BAME On The Move.
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