Why can’t we talk about race at work?

By Sarah Jurado, Head of Brand & Communications at the CIPD

‘I’m tired of talking about “let’s talk about race” … Square tables, oblong tables – we’re just having the same conversations. What is the imperative that will make us move to real action?’

‘We’re just not having conversations about race at work. It’s been put in the too difficult box. I want to have a conversation about race at work, but the leaders in my business either don’t want or don’t understand why we need to do this. How can I change that?’

These were just some of the comments that were made in a passionate, igniting, often deeply frustrating conversation about ‘Why is it that we find it easier to talk about gender than BAME diversity?’ at the latest Future of Work HR Leader’s Forum, powered by the CIPD and Jericho Chambers.

Whether one or both of those statements resonates with you, however you cut it the majority of HR and D&I leaders struggle, to the point of paralysis, to have a conversation about race at work. They either don’t know where to start, or can’t convince their leaders of why it’s important to talk about race at work. The impact of this has been cripplingly slow progress on the recruitment, development, progression and retention of black and minority ethnic employees in Britain.

Below are eight ways to make progress on BAME recruitment, progression and retention at work and six actions you can take today, captured from the debate*.

Please get involved in the conversation – on the CIPD community or comment thread below – and connect with each other to discuss how you can take decisive action on an issue that has been brushed under the carpet for too long, fuelled by a disproportionate fear of getting it wrong. You can also download the CIPD’s latest research report 'Addressing the barriers to BAME employee career progression to the top' to help you drive action in your organisation.

(*The views are those of the speakers and guests. The debate was conducted under the Chatham House Rule.)

Eight ways to make progress on BAME recruitment, progression and retention at work:

1. Get involved in conversations about race – they’re happening, just not where you are
Often it’s just a case of looking up and out and getting involved. As one Head of Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) said, ‘Conversations are happening about race all the time, just not where you are. Go out and take part in experiential conversations. There are loads of podcasts about black culture that you can listen to, for example.

‘Just don’t be passive – go out and find those conversations. Get as many experiences as you can. Talk about popular culture and grab hold of that. Open up a conversation about the film Black Panther – that is not an uncomfortable conversation, because it’s based on a shared experience.'

2. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes
‘When lived experiences are shared, things can change,’ said another D&I leader. ‘10 years ago I was sick of seeing lovely posters of people who did not look like me in adverts for the retail bank where I worked. There was nothing in our marketing that represented our BAME employees or customers. So I went out and spoke to 500 BAME individuals to hear about their experiences. I heard things like “I find it hard to pronounce your name”; “get rid of your dreads”; “I don’t understand you – our customers won’t like that” – it certainly made the Board sit up when I took this feedback to them.’

Another challenged people in the room not to shy away from the conversation if you are white. 'Ask yourself what your own experience is of diversity,’ she said. ‘Be brave, ask for help. People like to discount other’s experiences because they haven’t had that experience for themselves. When people confront me with that I say, “I’ve never been in an avalanche before, but I’m sure it would be pretty rubbish.”’

3. Envision a black person leading your organisation
People’s personal experiences and networks and the orbits in which we coexist can damage perspective and have a detrimental effect on how we all behave and act at work. We need to have more vision. As one of our speakers – a Chief Executive and former HR Director – so eloquently explained, ‘Every white man knows a white woman. And the point of that statement is to establish why the gender conversation is easier and more vigorous – because C-suite leaders have women in their professional and personal orbits. But they often don’t have BAME individuals in either. The mere fact that most people in power lack contact with BAME individuals at an equal level is a major challenge and is why they don’t talk about race.’

He added, ‘For someone in the C-suite to envision progress on gender at work, they have to believe that at some point in their own organisation a woman will be the CEO. That’s what they are saying when they commit to the gender agenda. I don’t believe that CEOs in this country envision a black person leading their organisation. When you envision it, you backfill everything to accomplish it. Without that vision there’s a void and a silence around the issue.’

4. See colour – don’t perpetuate the myth of meritocracy
Another issue that was highlighted is around the myth of meritocracy and those who say “I don’t see colour at work”.

‘There’s a belief that black and Asian talent does not exist. It’s not true,’ said one Head of D&I. ‘If we’re working in a meritocracy and they’re not here, you are saying we don’t exist – otherwise they’d be here. When I talk to people about this in my organisation I talk truth. We all need to speak truth – for example that organisations are not meritocracies, or that many D&I leaders happen to be white women – otherwise this agenda simply won’t go beyond these conversations.’

5. Fix the system, not the people – more advocacy is required
Role models, zero-tolerance on discrimination, and inclusive workplaces were all highlighted as having an important role to play in ensuring that talented BAME employees don’t get overlooked at work. And there was deep frustration and scepticism expressed about programmes that organisations put in place ‘that try and fix them [BAME or female employees]’. ‘Stop trying to fix the people and fix the system,’ said an HR leader.

There was almost unanimous agreement in the room that advocacy is vital, but that the recruitment and promotion process in many organisations is flawed. One of our speakers – who provided a candid snapshot of how often they’d been held back at work because they are from an ethnic minority, despite having an award-winning career – remarked, ‘I’ve been mentored to death. If organisations just take the blockers away, we’ll get there… Sponsorship is more important than mentoring if you want to progress. Having someone high-up in the organisation with influence who believes in you and will open doors for you creates a short-cut. BAME employees don’t need to be sponsored by a BAME leader – they just need support from a leader.’

‘Everywhere the recruitment process is so broken and unfair,’ said an HR leader, in response. ‘It may be a paradox, but it’s the antithesis of any type of equality and inclusion at work – the selection process is pretty rotten. While I don’t believe that HR can fix cultures, anyone in HR can take power and do something that will make a change [in recruitment, selection and retention].’

HR can perpetuate the problem too, according to another. ‘HR is responsible for coining the phrase “fit /cultural fit”. It really is a load of BS. If we’re all meant to be inclusive employers, then why doesn’t everyone “fit”? he challenged. ‘Executive recruitment firms perpetuate the myth of “fit”. They really mean the person of least resistance. They playback the most acceptable thing [to an organisation] and the number one measure is “fit”.’

Another agreed, adding, ‘we’ve built organisational cultures that are safe. Fit is a proxy. Organisations like safety and low-risk.’ To which one guest challenged back, ‘I don’t want to hear about “risk” and BAME talent in the same sentence. I’m not a risk, I’m brilliant.’

6. Put your arms around your people
The move to self-managed careers was highlighted as a systemic problem for inclusion in workplaces. ‘BAME and female employees are at a disadvantage [when it comes to self-managed careers],’ said one speaker. ‘White men can take advantage of a light touch system because they have social capital – mentors, sponsors, advocacy… But the self-managed career, created by HR, is not working. Folklore has developed where X need not apply for a role because Y is already earmarked for the position.’

‘As HR professionals we need to put our arms back around people. Why do we treat everyone the same? Let’s challenge the self-managed career. The other shiny object is around blind CVs. I predict that for every company that has put in place blind CVs they will find that their female in-take will go down. It’s a blunt instrument. We need to think through the unintended consequences.’

7. Hold people accountable
Accountability and transparency is crucial for any organisation that is genuine about improving inclusion in work and the recruitment, progression and retention of talented BAME people. If organisations aren’t held to account through regulation and legislation change will be slow and incremental.

One speaker commented, ‘It’s not just about targets and measures, it’s about principles. It’s not just about rules and compliance, it’s about evidence, transparency and accountability – you can’t have one without the other. We need to be able to tell the story of the progress we are making in our organisations through and with our people, not just report on the numbers’, he said. ‘HR leaders need to be more courageous, hold managers to account and drive change top to bottom. There should be consequences if business doesn’t deliver. Look at what’s happening with Gender Pay Gap Reporting. Let’s use this as an opportunity to start talking now about the race pay gap.’

8. Stop looking for silver bullets – it’s about ‘door-to-door combat’
One of our speakers advised those in the room to, ‘Stop looking for silver bullets.’ ‘I’ve not heard of any solutions [during my career] that will fit every company,’ he said. ‘It’s door-to-door combat, daily. It’s about challenging culture, leadership, recruitment panels – not about trying to make it easy. We need to standardise and devise a roadmap of progression for the D&I profession – which is part of HR. There are no D&I solutions, only HR solutions.’

Six actions you can take today to progress the BAME agenda at work:

1. Hold leaders and line managers accountable – if there is no pressure to change or no unintended consequences we will not see progress. Do you have a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination in your organisation? Accountability and transparency go hand-in-hand.
2. Review your recruitment processes – are they unintentionally biased? What has worked well and less well in your organisation? Why? What are the unintended consequences?
3. Start a conversation about race at work – tap into popular culture if you don’t know where to start
4. Create advocacy for BAME talent – from sponsorship to coaching and mentoring.
5. Promote role models – from diverse leadership teams to ‘seeing someone like you’ who has progressed in an organisation, is a key enabler of progression.
6. Prepare for the race pay gap – if legislation came in tomorrow would you be ready? What could you do today to better understand and challenge the race pay gap in your organisation? HR owns workforce data and is in a position to change the organisation.

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.


  • Sarah,

    The answer is very simple - there are n`t enough BAME people in positions of power or influence.  Non BAME leaders and captions of industry have absolutely no idea what a BAME person has to go through therefore - it`s not important.  In the next ten years 1 person in every 10 will be mixed race.  We owe it to the next generation to eliminate discrimination and remove obstacles so that the talent needed to take our country forward is not jeopardised.  White leaders need to wake up and smell they coffee now!! and not when their mixed-race grandchildren come to them with problems about progressing in the world of work.