In this guest feature, Romeo Effs, CEO and Founder of Lumorus, a global consultancy advising boards and organisations on the governance, management, and delivery of high-risk strategies, delivers the basics on combating system racism in the workplace.
Equity is giving everyone a suit that fits. The digital world has not only placed the evidence of social injustice at our fingertips but has allowed each of us to join in the movement towards establishing global safe spaces. Equitable spaces have been a legacy issue that has transposed for many generations. Social activists have fought to balance the scale of privilege and curate environments that are conducive for cohabitation.
The year 2020 has definitely stood out as a signal of global unrest, driven by the death of George Floyd and COVID-19. Data from the Statistica Research Department unveiled that 2020 accounted for 1,021 fatal police shootings in the United States, whereas data for the preceding year accounted for 999. The figures are quite concerning and fuel the urgency surrounding sustainable solutions.
COVID-19 as a torch for system racism
The global pandemic has brought to the fore several inequalities that have been etched into the societal fabric to which we have grown accustomed. COVID-19 underscored the lack of progress in tackling racism and discrimination. This is supported by the harmful impact of the virus on Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. It is reported that COVID-19 related deaths are 3.3 times higher for Black males than for white males and 2.4 times greater for Black females. These figures fan the flames of concern for the wellbeing of Black people and serve as an indicator of the extent to which systemic racism forms part of globalised culture.
Perhaps the health challenges COVID-19 is still a remote concept even amid the growing global spread. However, system racism is more enshrined into everyday experiences than what is publicised. How so? Across industries and job levels, Black employees are more than likely to be laid off or fired than their white counterparts. This is particularly prevalent in times of transition and economic uncertainty. This imbalanced scale is also mirrored in access to housing and differential access to health care.
Structural racism has been uncovered within the UK education system with the cancellation of A-level and GCSE exams due to COVID-19. The exam cancellation was remedied by result predictions, and as a result, it was reported that BAME students were most negatively impacted. The predicted results could not be removed from the subjective layers enforced by institutional racism, favouritism and bias. Consequently, the figures show that 39.9% of Black students are more likely to have inaccurate grades than white peers.
What does this mean for the future?
It means a fundamental change in approach and shifts to tackle structural racism issues within our systems. This change is measured against the backdrop of diversity and inclusion (D&I). It places a grave responsibility on the organisational leadership to navigate the inherent issues and provide feasible solutions. The implementation of race and ethnicity initiatives is prohibited by company leaders being unable to fulsomely understand the challenges of a diverse workforce. As they also control the budgets and decide which diversity programmes to pursue, this lack of understanding can create serious barriers to designing effective solutions.
The following are examples of harmful behavioural mentalities that can affect how cohesion is achieved within any given organisation.
Leadership culture blind spots
- Still believing that “build it and they will come” – gone are the days when this happens as employees are now far more educated, engaged and emboldened, so want to be heard and be involved in the design and implementation of any EDI initiative. Leaders also need to understand that whatever they build, they will be held accountable for and that they are also part of this journey.
- Not having enough focus or specifications on what success looks like – this is where data becomes the driving force and differentiator. Most organisations tend only to focus on diversity data, which leads to inaccuracies and the wrong focus. It is with both diversity and inclusive data” that you can focus on the biggest challenges, explore best practices for these challenges and design and implement the right action plan. Read more about inclusion data HERE
- Lack of Leadership commitment – especially by those in the middle. In all the years we have been working in the Organisational Health space, the middle managers, supervisors, and team leaders seem to have the most struggle understanding and implementing culture change. Whilst it’s important to have the full support of the leadership team on the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) agenda, it’s the middle that ensures it’s done right as they usually have the day to day responsibilities in the organisation.
- Insufficient listening – I cannot emphasise enough the importance of active listening and the need to involve employees throughout the process. How can you fix the culture issue if you don’t understand the issues from those affected? Can a doctor prescribe medicine for you if he does not know your symptoms? An organisation’s culture is a set of parameters for those who engage with it has to operate in. This, however, is made up of stakeholders, in particular employees from different communities with varied socialisation and domestication. Therefore the only way to ensure the organisational culture parameters are the right ones for this multicultural group is to get them involved genuinely in shaping it.
- Oversimplification of the issues of diversity and inclusion – This is where most organisations get it wrong. They see it as simply a diversity issue, which they think is just about hiring more people with diverse characteristics – let’s just hire more Black people. The issue is greater than the diversity of talent, as this is easy to fix….yes, very easy to fix. The problem is more about how included they feel when they join the organisation, their psychological safety to engage and speak up, and how open they feel to bring as much of themselves in the performance of their role. It’s about identifying the systematic inequalities in all the processes, procedures and systems that we use in the organisation. There are culture change levers that each organisation needs to identify, prioritise and then build the right action plan to embed them in the strategic direction of the organisation. We have identified 12 such Culture Change Levers to help organisations on their inclusive culture change journey.
- Many leaders also believe that the recruiting phase presents the biggest obstacles—particularly for people of ethnic descent. I keep hearing this over and over again – “there is no talent out there”; we don’t know where to find the talent; they are not applying for the roles. I hear this more often when hiring at the senior management or for the board level. The issue is most recruiters are lazy and divert to their usual list or mode of recruitment. The talent exists, and all it takes is some extra effort. If you are looking for an eagle, you would not expect to find one on the ground. You will need to tilt your head and gaze upwards and possibly use binoculars so you can spot it. So to find Black or ethnic talent, you cannot keep looking in the same place as you do for white colleagues. You have to find where this talent congregates, network, what they read and how they function as a community. Using recruitment as an obstacle is simply an excuse for not taking meaningful action.
Building organisational capacity requires extensive evaluation and intensional discussions on race. Leaders should be heavily oriented towards the successful implementation of an EDI strategy and ensure commitment to the involvement of employees in actions that are Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic and Time-bound (SMART).
EDI needs to be intentionally layered into the strategy and various key activities of the organisation from the recruitment phase and beyond to avoid tokenism. It will also ensure that the overall organisation purpose, objectives and value to stakeholders are achieved.
Rome was not built in one day, and creating an inclusive culture is just the same! Its success is connected to developing a team that looks and functions in an inclusive, psychologically safe way and delivers sustainable high performance. It takes us back to a phrase that is tried but true, “talk about it, be about it.” We cannot allow the climatic force that was 2020 to pass without establishing SMART actions against the social injustices within our organisations and, by extension, our society.
- Re-examine your purpose and start the leadership conversation on race
- Strong focus on implementation, commitment from leaders and the involvement of employees to Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, Time-related Actions
- Leaders must be particularly open to learning and feedback from employees to help them understand the issues they face.
- Removing the top-down approaches of teaching about discrimination and encouraging open, nonjudgmental conversations across all levels in the organisation.
- Identify the EDI culture change levers and ensure initiatives stretch beyond the recruitment phase to avoid tokenism.
- Stop focusing on diversity, instead focus on inclusion and belonging to create a culture where everyone can thrive.
- Work harder at Diversifying your Brand and the face of your organisation
- Accept it’s a journey so Measure, Evaluate & Iterate – it’s a Mo Farah, not a Usain Bolt