Black British Business Awards MD Debbie Tembo on the steps to meaningful inclusion

Tembo says that businesses mustn't get overwhelmed by the D&I task ahead of them

A year on from George Floyd’s death, we asked a group of diversity, equality and inclusion specialists if anything has changed within organisations regarding race equality. Here Debbie Tembo, Managing Director of the Black British Business Awards, shares her views.

What initiatives have organisations put in place?

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, many organisations have signed up to pledges outlining practices and policies that will create more inclusive workplaces. Others have tried to create safe spaces through town halls and coaching circles where ethnic minority talent can express and share their lived experiences and colleagues can gain a deeper understanding of what it might be like to navigate a majority culture. Reverse mentoring practices and allyship training workshops have also been used by organisations to ensure those senior managers and executive sponsors who are in the majority can be better allies to their ethnic minority colleagues.

Many organisations have reevaluated their HR practices, including how they can make their search and recruitment processes more inclusive of diverse talent. Like it or loathe it, unconscious bias training has also escalated over the year. Plus, those searching for Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers has hit an unprecedented level as organisations look to expand their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategies and create a positive impact in the areas of attracting, developing and retaining talent. Culture assessments which identify the gaps that need to be filled to create sustainable places of work for an intersectional workforce are helping companies implement initiatives that focus on building inclusive cultures.

In some organisations, employee resource groups are finally securing the ear of senior management and collaboration between HR, DEI, line managers and executive sponsors is improving. This cooperation is leading to increased investment in the practices that shift the needle for the advancement of diverse talent, and in the networks themselves.

Is talking about race still taboo?

Talking about race is still taboo and it will be for some time to come. Race is a subject that is painful for those afflicted by it and for those who are brought into a conversation about it. In the second edition of our report, ‘Progressing Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Talent in the Workplace Through Collaborative Action’, respondent feedback suggests that there is significant discomfort around talking about race and ethnicity, partly because people are worried about saying the wrong thing or offending but also because people fear being accused of bias or prejudice.

When we fear being judged, we are more likely to hold back. This behaviour tarnishes the quality of communication and the sense of trust between people. Anxiety about being unfairly accused of bias is highest for people who want to be thought of as not prejudiced. There is no doubt that many people are also in denial about how deep-rooted and racist our societal structures are. Only when we have difficult conversations can we begin a journey of reconciliation, understanding, and healing.

Has progress been made to level the playing field for minorities in organisations?

Despite some organisations making rapid progress to level the playing field for minorities, the process is a marathon, and we must accept that it will take time. The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED) report has done little to help, but our hope is that organisations will continue to commit to the pledges that they have signed and ensure that change in their workplace moves ahead at a greater pace.

What more needs to be done?

To level up and achieve true equity, organisations need to create work environments where people of colour can be successful, be given opportunity, and advance in their careers.

Accountability is a core principle that organisations that are serious about tackling ethnic disparity in the workplace should practice. Businesses must hold up a mirror, be accountable to their people and be transparent about where they are on their DEI journey with regards to ethnic minority representation and advancement across the workforce.

Businesses must commit to targets and share them publicly to show they are working towards addressing the systematic issues around inequality in the workplace. Linking targets to performance bonuses will show that a business is committed to penalising underperformance related to building an inclusive and sustainable work environment. DEI must be made a strategic imperative and to maintain accountability, businesses should ensure that the Chief Diversity Officer reports into the CEO.

Have lessons been learnt?

The past year has been a time of much personal and organisational reflection. There’s no escaping that what we see out there, in our society, is reflected in here, in our organisations. Equality in the workplace and greater social justice in the world go hand-in-hand.

Personally, I have learnt that the road to equity and inclusion is a journey that requires a degree of realism – it is going to take time. Whilst it is important to acknowledge this, businesses must not allow overwhelm to prevent them from taking the first step. They must commit to listening, learning, and reading about best practices globally then take action to adapt best practices to their market and culture context. A one-size DEI strategy does not fit all, which is why it is important to involve experts and understand the ecosystem.

Substantial change takes a village, and this work cannot be achieved alone. Businesses must be prepared to have difficult conversations, sit with their discomfort, and remember that remaining silent on the race agenda speaks a thousand words. Employees, customers, and investors are ready and waiting to see action and they are not afraid to penalise those that do not speak up. Now is the time for businesses to be accountable by living up to the commitments they have made and the pledges they have signed up to. If businesses are true to their word, the data will speak for itself.
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