Tackling institutional racism starts with you

Date Published

26/02/2021

Reading time

4 mins read

Author

Ismail Amla

While many companies may have paid lip service to the issue of racism in 2020, the unconscious, and sometimes explicit, bias of racism runs deep.

Change can’t happen on a superficial level; it has to touch every aspect of the business, and this starts with the actions of our leaders.

Diversity and Inclusion is mission-critical for businesses. This goes beyond the obvious ethical problem of discriminating against someone based on their ethnicity. Organisations need to hire teams and champion leaders that represent the growing diversity of the UK population.

Racism isn’t just a privately held bias; it’s dangerous. In 2018 / 19, there were 103,379 hate crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales . Most of them were race hate crimes, accounting for around three quarters (76%) of offences. While this may seem a big leap away from the confines of the office or a Zoom call, the reality is that racism has many faces and micro-offences and employees’ and leaders’ everyday actions can add up to and perpetuate exclusion, inequality and discrimination.

This diagram shows that, when contemplating racism, companies are often dealing with the tip of the iceberg. We can all agree that the things above the line are unacceptable, but racism is also perpetrated in more subtle, non-violent ways that are just as damaging. The four planes that racism operates on are:

  1. Structural – public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations and other norms that perpetuate racial group inequality
  2. Institutional – discriminatory treatment, unfair policies and practices, inequitable opportunities and effects within organisations and institutions, based on race, that routinely produce racially inequitable outcomes for people of colour and advantages for white people
  3. Interpersonal – the expression of racism between people. It happens when they interact, and their private beliefs affect their interactions
  4. Personal – people’s private beliefs, prejudices and ideas about the superiority of one race and the inferiority of another.

In 2018, Grant Thornton’s Diversity Snapshot revealed that 60% of business leaders think that diversity doesn’t play a significant role in their organisations . In fact, diversity brings enormous potential in business.

When talking about my book Incremental to Exponential, I’ve frequently referred to examples of enormously successful businesses like Apple and Google making really conscious efforts to create connections between different groups of people in their workforces that might not otherwise meet. Difference is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for innovation: different perspectives lead to different ideas.

It comes down to a mindset shift: we all need to think differently and hold ourselves accountable for our own biased behaviour.

Here are some practical actions that you can take right now to address racism in the workplace:

  • Encourage employees to disclose their backgrounds: Take positive action to improve reporting rates among your workforce, explaining why supplying data will improve diversity and the business as a whole
  • Publicly share your company-wide data and commitments: Publish a breakdown of employees by race and pay band. Disclose ethnicity pay gaps. Publish five-year aspirational targets and report against these annually
  • Encourage participation: In meetings, ask very specific questions of people whose contributions and expertise are often overlooked or devalued. Encourage allies to step out of the spotlight by, for example, asking an Asian woman to lead a meeting or recommending that a person from an underrepresented group takes their place in a high-visibility position or event
  • Establish reverse mentoring: Encourage senior leaders and executive board members to be mentored by employees from different backgrounds, to understand their challenges and the positive effects of diversity
  • Focus on unconscious bias: Make unconscious bias training part of your organisation’s L&D programme, and run racial bias awareness workshops for people managers, senior leaders and executives
  • Insist on executive sponsorship: Identify a board-level sponsor for all diversity issues, including race, and make them ultimately accountable for delivering aspirational targets. To ensure that this happens, your board chair, CEO and CFO should outline the steps that they’re taking to improve diversity in your annual report
  • Diversity as a KPI: Bake a clear diversity objective into all leaders’ annual appraisals to ensure that they take the issue seriously 
  • Challenge your talent acquisition channels: Use relevant, appropriate and accessible language in job specifications and adverts; insist on proportional representation in long and short lists from recruiters; ensure that you have diverse interview panels; actively seek entry-level talent from a wider demographic spectrum than you do today


Give access to senior leaders and wider networks: Establish coaching, mentoring and sponsorship 

This is a social reform movement. We’re trying to change certain elements of the social structure – and this means activists and allies need to engineer for social structural change. To date, we’ve had a limited mindset that focuses on treating the symptoms of racism; we must shift to thinking widely and continuously about building a platform for future sustainable change. 

Written by

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Ismail Amla

Chief Growth Officer, Capita

Ismail is leading business development, sales and marketing to support our transformation and organic growth plans. In 2018 he was named as one of the top 100 most influential Black, Asian minority ethnic (BAME) leaders in the UK tech sector by Inclusive Boards.

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