Comment: Jane Farrell of EW Group provides some practical guidance on how to foster an inclusive workplace, to the benefit of all

The killing of George Floyd by police during an arrest in Minneapolis on 25 May sparked protests all over the world, putting the spotlight firmly on the brutality against black people and systemic racism that lies behind it.

Statues of those who were slave traders are being removed, Oriel College Oxford backed the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue and some leaders, including Greg Glassman CEO of CrossFit, have resigned after complaints of a racist organisational culture. Change is happening.

This intensified focus on racism means that it is even more vital for leaders to think through how to respond in ways that address systemic disadvantage.

There is a direct correlation between people who feel respected and supported at work and productivity and engagement

Representation matters, and the best organisations are taking positive action to ensure they recruit the best candidates, not just those who resemble the people who already hold senior positions. Black people are dramatically underrepresented at board level: in February 2020 an update from the Parker review showed that people of colour hold fewer than 7% of director positions across the FTSE 350. This holds at senior leadership levels too. Sometimes the only black person is the diversity and inclusion lead.

However, it is equally important that white people know what they need to say and do to be anti-racist, otherwise that work is ironically left to black people who are on the receiving end of racism.

The benefits of promoting inclusive policies and culture in the workplace are well-documented. There is a direct correlation between people who feel respected and supported at work and productivity and engagement.

When we create a safe and respectful environment for one group, many others benefit as well. Ensuring the standards are clear and that managers understand how to recognise and tackle racist behaviours, will help black employees – and many white ones too – feel safe and supported.

Oriel College, Oxford, backed the removal of its Cecil Rhodes statue last month. (Credit: Hannah McKay/Reuters)

Line managers who know they are required to demonstrate sensitivity and cultural intelligence will recruit and retain the best staff and reap the benefits in performance, loyalty, and discretionary effort.

Inclusive cultures ensure different voices are heard in meetings and we hear brilliant ideas from people who are often unheard and overlooked. When people feel able to contribute, creative sparks fly, and innovation happens.

Leaders need to be aware of how advantage and disadvantage operate, even in micro ways; for example, why some people get a pat on the back, or an acting-up role – where they temporarily act-up into duties of a role at a higher grade than their current position – and others do not. Those who are not in the “in group” notice that these benefits do not accrue to them and that they will be less likely to succeed when substantive posts are advertised.

Here are my seven top tips on how to be an inclusive leader:

1. Listen

It is important to listen to what black people inside and outside organisations are saying about how current events capture their lived experiences of micro- and macro-aggressions – in workplaces, the criminal justice system, housing and politics – and for white leaders to acknowledge that there are things that they have not said, done, or understood, and commit to change.

2. Have difficult conversations

White leaders can only have positive difficult conversations about anti-racism if they understand how racism operates, how white people benefit from it and how advantage and disadvantage works in their organisations.

We have been running some focus groups with black staff in an organisation, but at the same time working with the predominantly white senior leadership team.

Black staff have been asked many times about their experiences of racism and so it is critical that the work that needs to be done to dismantle it is done predominantly by white managers. It is possible to equip all line managers to handle difficult conversations confidently and skilfully, but people need to be taught how to do it well.

3. Educate yourself

Those of us who are white managers must educate ourselves rather than ask members of the black community to explain things to us. One challenge right now is with black people being asked to bare their souls about their lived experiences when they have already been asked many times before.

It is an individual’s responsibility to educate themselves and there are plenty of insightful articles and books available, such as Afua Hirsch’s ‘Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging’; Reni Eddo-Lodge’s ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’; and Chris Lambert’s article, ‘A Letter to my White Friends’.

Workplaces should not expect black employees to keep having to explain their experience. (Credit: ESB Basic/Shutterstock)

4. Know what not to say

Saying “all lives matter” detracts from the reality of structural systemic disadvantage.

It implies there are not stark patterns proving that black people are disproportionately disadvantaged in many areas, from the criminal justice system and housing, to being underrepresented at middle and senior levels. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), one in eight of the working-age population is from a black or minority ethnic (BME) background, yet they occupy only one in 16 top management positions.

When people say it, it tells leaders that they need to do more to help their staff understand how to be anti-racist.

5. Reflect on our white privilege

White leaders must reflect on the privileges they enjoy because they are white and think through how they can use it to address systemic racism.

This could be restructuring the way they chair a meeting to ensure black voices are heard, obtaining data around grievance and discipline, and being thoughtful about which staff they praise and which they criticise.

They can also use their white privilege to speak up when they hear racist banter and say it is unacceptable.

6. Do not make superficial statements

Organisations must think very carefully about any statement they make and ensure they back it up by outlining what practical measures they are going to put in place to deal with racism.

We are working with NCG, one of the leading providers of education, training and employability across the UK. Its statement on equality, diversity and inclusion, in response to recent global events, is not only authentic but it is backed up by practical action detailing what NCG is going to do to take account of racism.

7. Take action

Ensure line managers are trained to understand how advantage and disadvantage play out and equip them to be able to creatively disrupt it.

Carry out a forensic analysis of recruitment and selection and data about who is – and who is not – being appointed to what positions, how long black staff stay in the organisation compared with white staff, and employee satisfaction levels.

There is clearly a lot more work to be done and now is the time for organisations and leaders to focus on racism and actively and sincerely demonstrate they are listening, learning, and are committed to delivering change.

Your staff, stakeholders and customers are watching.

Jane Farrell is co-founder and chief executive of EW Group, the full-service diversity and inclusion consultancy. She is an expert in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, and organisational development.

Main picture credit: sebra/Shutterstock


Black Lives Matter  Oriel College  diversity and inclusion  unconscious bias  NCG  racism  George Floyd 

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