Diversity in the workplace is everybody’s responsibility

Sandra Kerr, OBE, CBE, National Campaign Director for Race Equality at Business in the Community (BITC), talks about the Race at Work Charter and how companies can move the dial on diversity.

More than 190 companies in the UK have now signed up to the Race at Work Charter since its launch in October 2018, by Sandra Kerr, OBE, CBE, to improve diversity in UK businesses.

They are committed to taking practical steps to ensure that people from ethnic minorities do not face barriers during recruitment and career progression. The Charter comprises five calls for action. They are:

  • Appoint an executive sponsor for race
  • Zero tolerance of harassment and bullying
  • Make clear that all leaders and managers are responsible for supporting equality
  • Support the career progression of BAME talent

The Charter is based on the findings of the Business in the Community’s (BITC) Race at Work Scorecard report published as part of the McGregor-Smith one-year-on review. These, together with the BITC Race at Work original survey of 2015, provided the evidence for the Charter’s five principles.

Sandra Kerr, National Campaign Director for Race Equality at Business in the Community (BITC) was the driving force behind the survey. She is a passionate advocate for workplace equality and diversity, and her services were recognised with the award of a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours this year. Sandra is also the holder of an OBE, awarded in 2012, for services to BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) people.

Before joining BITC in 2003, Sandra worked in the civil service. Beginning her career at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) gave her first-hand experience of how “managing diverse teams can work and produce great results”. She then had a four-year stint with the Cabinet Office where she was involved in influencing government policies on disability, race, gender and work-life balance.

Originally, Sandra intended to be a career civil servant. However, while she could see that the civil service and Government were committed to equality and diversity, she wanted to take a hand in extending it to the private sector.

Her work at BITC still involves the civil service. She’s been collaborating with the DWP on the unemployment gap; the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the McGregor-Smith review and the Cabinet Office on the race disparity audit. Sandra regularly speaks at conferences and events and engages with senior leaders on key issues.

She recognises that race in the workplace has gone through peaks and troughs over the years. Now it is very much on a high.

“If you talk about race in the workplace – no matter where you’re located, no matter what industry you’re in, you need to look at it,” Sandra explains.

“There has been a step-change in the last couple of years since The McGregor-Smith review 2017 brought new information into the public domain. Ethnic diversity is worth £24 billion per annum to the UK economy. Suddenly, it has become, not only the right thing to do but something that will bring about an economic boost if tackled correctly. That has changed the narrative.

“I’m a big advocate of ethnicity and pay gap reporting; not because it’s a silver bullet and will tackle everything, but because it has brought the conversation to senior leaders in a way that hasn’t happened before.

“This is people’s lives, and it is complex. But complexity is not a reason not to do things.”

The route to the Race at Work Charter began in 2015. Sandra recalls: “We were looking for an idea to mark 20 years in which BITC had had an active campaign focusing on race equality. Based on what I’d heard from employers in the ten years prior, the big issue was attracting BAME people. There was also the other challenge of how to progress them once recruited, and ensure they don’t end up leaving because they feel frustrated and unrecognised.”

To get a fuller picture and identify the challenges and barriers to BAME progression, BITC ran the Race at Work survey. It was sponsored by BT, KPMG, Enterprise-Rent-A-Car, Nationwide and Sainsbury’s, all of which were keen to find out more. The results showed where things needed to change. The second survey in 2018, and the resulting Race at Work Scorecard report provided the evidence to support the five priority areas.


Appoint an executive sponsor for race

Having someone who can set targets for BAME representation, brief recruitment agencies and support mentoring and sponsorship are key. The second survey showed little movement in this area, a result that surprised Sandra, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and other diversity and inclusion campaigns.

She reveals: “We found that there was no change in leadership, as far as the volume of employers who have got someone at the top who is responsible for promoting equality and diversity. It’s still 33%, and we know you need someone at the top to speak on behalf of the employees, to make sure it remains a priority.”

Capture ethnicity data and publish progress

The second survey asked respondents whether their employer captured ethnicity and pay data and published it.

“That was the Government’s and our inquisitiveness to find out if gender, and gender pay, reporting had morphed naturally into ethnicity pay reporting,” says Sandra. “The results showed that only 11%  of businesses had. The results sparked a need to help accelerate progress as it was clear it would not happen naturally.”

Ethnicity data is an important baseline for measuring progress and means an organisation is better equipped to report on ethnicity pay. Sandra urges companies to focus on ensuring their declaration rates are as high as possible. They should also look at data in the context of local demographics to see if it is representative.

Where organisations struggle to capture data, the advice is to be transparent and make people aware of why it’s important and what it will accomplish.

Zero tolerance of harassment and bullying

The survey showed that 25% of people from ethnic minorities had witnessed or experienced racial harassment or bullying from managers in the last two years. There was also an increase in experiencing it from clients and customers.

When asked if they were given support to call it out if they observed it, only 22% of employees felt that they would be supported. Additional evidence that commitment is needed from the top to achieve change.

Make clear that all leaders and managers are responsible for supporting equality

The fourth commitment, which is also one of the main recommendations in the McGregor-Smith review, is that everyone should have a diversity objective.

“It’s fallen back in the last three years,” says Sandra. “Even more strangely, if you are a black or Asian manager in the UK, you are more likely to have a performance objective to promote equality than if you are a white manager – Why? I don’t know.

“All managers should have an objective to facilitate and development and progression of all the employees in their teams. If performance against this objective is linked to reward and recognition it will focus mind and action is taken to ensure access to opportunities, stretch assignments and key projects are distributed fairly within a team.”  

Support the career progression of BAME talent

Progress for BAME employees has been a regular theme in BITC surveys. In the most recent one, 70% said that progression in the workplace was important to them, compared with 38% of the white workforce.

Many of those who felt that they were not given enough opportunities were likely to have degrees and PhDs. As Sandra points out: “There are high levels of ambition and desire to progress from ethnic minority employees.”

Let’s talk about race

Training, specifically for those involved in recruitment, Sandra believes, is important. While there was scepticism around unconscious bias training, Sandra argues it does have value, provided it is timed properly and includes follow-up action.

Perhaps the elephant in the room is how to discuss race. Early research showed there was concern about the terminology to use and whether it would cause offence. To address this, Sandra wrote the Let’s Talk About Race booklet.

“There is that element of ‘I don’t see colour’ or ‘we are not racist’,” she explains. “This is not about that. This is why data is so important because you can at least throw up disparities and start talking about what the numbers mean; why are all the BAME people down at the bottom of the organisation as opposed to in the middle and the top?”


How to move the dial on diversity

According to Sandra, there are “three big things” that companies need to do to move the dial on diversity in the workplace.

First is to look at existing data from Race at Work, McGregor-Smith, McKinsey and others. Research has shown a 33% increase in the bottom line for those companies with higher levels of ethnicity and diversity. Companies should compare their data from employee surveys to the Race at Work findings.

Secondly, monitor each stage of the recruitment process to ensure there is not a disproportionate drop out rate among BAME candidates. Also, as part of recruitment and promotion, have diverse people on the selection panels. Sandra points out that public and private sector organisations that have done this have reported an increase in diverse candidates getting through.

The third big thing is not to have one lone champion. “Use employee networks and focus groups to get champions on the ground,” she argues. “Hear first-hand the experience of employees, so you are speaking about current issues and in a way that resonates with and supports others.”

She also advocates leaders mentoring those from different backgrounds and for reverse mentoring, to give a two-way insight.

Sustaining change

The success of the Race at Work Charter depends on bringing the five principles to life and sustaining them.

Sandra stresses that number four, making leaders and managers responsible, was extremely important. “Where they have performance objectives, linked to their pay, it’s going to matter,” she adds.

“It’s going to be a journey, but I think there’s a real opportunity if everyone would not just talk the talk but walk the walk, do a bit of both. And everyone taking responsibility.”

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