6 ways HR can become an anti-racist ally

Zone
9 min readJul 6, 2022

Zone’s Marketing Executive, Rianna Mitchell, shares what she learned at the CIPD Festival of Work 2022 on how Human Resources (HR) can become an anti-racist ally in the workplace.

Hosted at Olympia London, the CIPD Festival of Work was a conference and free exhibition for professionals, business leaders and organisations to discover the new world of work and gain advice on adapting to the modern workplace. It’s an occasion to explore organisational challenges, such as employee experience (EX), plus insights into learning developments and skills from industry leaders.

BAME woman happily laughing while sat at desk in work office

At the conference, Lutfur Ali — Senior Policy Adviser at CIPD — met with Jenny Garrett OBE — award-winning career coach, leadership trainer, and author of Rocking your Role — to speak about HR’s immense power in helping businesses eradicate racism and discrimination in the workplace. As Garrett addressed the elephant in the room, she provided insight into what constitutes racism in the modern workplace and how professionals can ensure DEI (Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion) is central to organisational culture with leadership and managerial behaviour. She recommends these crucial steps and measures to shift a company’s anti-racist strategy from acknowledgement to lasting change:

1. Accept that racism exists in the workplace

The initial step to anti-racist allyship is accepting that racism is alive in the workplace, and the road to revolution is far ahead. Following the emergence of UK legislation — since 1968 — outlawing racial discrimination in employment, people have been under the illusion that racism has exited the building. Notwithstanding moving on from “old-fashioned” or overt forms of racism, establishing the Equality Act 2010, and the declined gap in employment between BAME and white ethnic groups — racism is still unrelenting in penetrating work culture. In fact, “racism is shapeshifting”, according to Garrett, and will proceed to metamorphose in future years if organisations fail to prioritise suppressing this everlasting business issue.

In addition to fighting workplace racism for social and moral purposes, from a business perspective, racism in the workplace damages the employee experience, where feeling undervalued, inferior, and alienated, and the decline in overall well-being can place detriment on company productivity, retention, and reputation. Garrett puts the pressure on HR and business leaders as she enlightens us that they are “the concrete block and real drive for change” in fostering racial inclusion through illuminating power play. Their positional power and influence on the organisation’s culture, values, and ethics mean they can “use [their] power to help someone or widen the gate for diversity”, she says. Garrett recommends business leaders formulate a “long-term plan” that they intend to sustain — and not regard efforts as a “one-off thing” if they seek success in tackling racial equality barriers.

Ethnically diverse colleagues working at table in work office

2. Understand what modern racism looks like in the workplace

Garrett warned HR to be vigilant of what racial prejudice looks like now and in the future, as it’s growing harder to detect. Contrary to “old-fashioned” or overt racism, its modern form is expressed in more subtle and nuanced ways and can be considered more oblique than confrontational. In the workplace, the author asserts modern racism manifests itself in “microaggressions” and unconscious bias; for instance, employees from ethnic minorities being ignored or overly criticised by leaders or peers, having assumptions made about their skills and abilities, or “there may be two workers from a similar background whose names are being interchangeably used despite looking nothing like one another. This is what racism has shape-shifted into”, states Garrett. Although it may be difficult to view these behaviours through the same lens as overt racism, it is equally as harmful due to its insidious and ubiquitous nature, and its impact should not be underestimated, as it can still cause long-term emotional and psychological damage.

Garrett encourages organisational leaders to “increase cultural intelligence”. Compelling employees to be an advocate in the workplace by educating themselves on their own cultural bias and how to unmask it within the workplace is strong allyship. HR should integrate cultural sensitivity training into their values, policies, practices, and operations so employees can gain a deeper understanding of how it applies in everyday conversations, interactions, and decisions, and regard cultural awareness as an expectation for workplace conduct. Garrett tells business leaders to “do stuff with your senior team to analyse their behaviours” to identify racist and biased tendencies and discover a route to dismantling them.

BAME woman having a discussion in office

3. Witnesses to racial discrimination need to speak up

People are often blindsided into believing that being a non-racist or offering sympathy to victims of racial discrimination at work helps diminish racism, but Garrett urges that being “a good person is not enough; we need to speak up”. However, it takes courage to call out racial injustice at work. Employees, particularly ethnic minority workers, often fear career, social or psychological harm from being honest or championing racial issues in the work environment. The leadership coach notified us that underrepresented individuals who attempt to challenge racism at work are only listened to with allies on their side, as those that strive to do it single-handedly are generally deemed as having “a chip on their shoulder”, she says.

HR can help transform employees from bystanders to allies by providing guidance on how to speak up in these difficult situations. Companies can create a safe space to have conversations, develop a systematic approach for calling out racism as well as practical actions for solutions, and equip managers and leaders with tools to deal with racial issues. Speaking up is also vital for lasting change, as Garrett says, “we need to start proving it” to highlight its profound pervasion in the workplace, which can be achieved through “helplines” and even “exit interviews” to get data together.

Paper displaying message: ‘Be loudly anti-racist’

4. Do not overlook “intersections” in diversity

The path to cultivating diversity in the workplace cannot be attributed to one dimension alone; it’s a multi-dimensional challenge that considers different systems of oppression and how they overlap, making it a non-linear and complex journey. Organisations struggle to incorporate more diverse and inclusive work environments by overlooking ‘intersectionality’ — which recognises the differences within identities (e.g., race, gender, sexuality, etc.) and how they can impact an employee’s lived experience. Garrett talks about the “compound effect”, where in this context, racism and other types of bias unify and exacerbate the negative effects of discrimination, such as “being black and a woman”, she says. Companies need to analyse the relationships between inequalities and understand that an employee’s work experience is influenced by a multitude of factors. Garratt informs that “black and disabled people are faring worse in organisations”.

As companies seek to be representative of the communities they operate in, they need to embrace intersectionality while considering all aspects of inclusion, diversity and belonging when enhancing their DEI efforts; it’s the only way to understand how people are affected and find ways to mitigate negative outcomes, both for the individual and the organisation, as intersectionality can impact all stages of the employee journey, from recruitment to onboarding and promotions to turnover rates.

BAME woman in office with two male colle

5. Listen to other people’s truth when holding space

Holding space — a leadership practice that provides employees a voice, regardless of their backgrounds or level of position — can make a positive difference when attuning to diversity. But diversity does not always guarantee inclusion, and inclusion is fundamental for holding space. Companies need to “acknowledge alternative truths”, advises Garrett, as there is not one truth. “Your truth can be different to someone else’s truth”, she continues. Leadership teams or those in the majority group, may be imperceptive to certain racial issues that is clearly visible to minority groups and having a narrow-minded or distorted view of the truth obstructs diversity and inclusion. Understanding that everyone’s perspective on racial discrimination deserves to be listened to, valued, and taken into consideration — whether leaders or white ethnic groups can relate or not — is important in anti-racist allyship.

Quote on race from Jenny Garrett OBE

Diversity engages with a wide range of perspectives, as it yields better information about reality from inviting diverse voices to the conversation. Garrett advises companies to create “a shadow board”, which invites ethnic minority employees or external advisors to provide input to strategic initiatives with senior teams to provide diverse perspectives and insights on racial discrimination. She also suggests HR to “get guest speakers to hear different perspectives” on racial prejudice to help strengthen understanding. Getting employees to “listen to podcasts or read a book about it together” to “then have a meeting about it”, promotes listening to other people’s truths.

BAME woman having a discussion in work office

6. Learn to appreciate an ethnically diverse workplace

Establishing a diverse workforce goes beyond the visual aspects, such as embracing various ethnicities, ages, and genders; it must appreciate the different values, beliefs, and conventions that come with these identities. Garrett says, “we need to appreciate difference to be an anti-racist ally”. HR leaders should be asking themselves: Do we have a healthy balance between ‘assimilation’ and appreciating diversity? Assimilation is when ethnic minorities absorb and adapt to the cultural traditions of the dominant group. Most companies have unique expectations of assimilation in the workplace when it comes to language, behaviour, and procedures (e.g., turning up to work on time), but it needs to be positive and healthy in that it does not promote conformity.

Companies risk sabotaging diversity when ethnic minorities must bear the burden of assimilation by being left to figure out what is acceptable and unacceptable at work. Employees need to feel psychologically safe and not have the mental and emotional pressure of assimilation, as it can impact their ability to perform and grow and develop professionally. Companies must be transparent and clear about their expectations and the need for assimilation from the beginning while accepting difference and being wary about which cultural standards they are supporting — particularly those that do not have severe consequences for the business.

Furthermore, it appears that there is a lot to gain from having a racially diverse workforce, which some companies fail to recognise. Garrett mentions McKinsey’s report on diversity to support this, stating “the more diversity, the more financial turnover”. Appreciating diversity comes in other forms too, as Garrett suggests that companies can “diversify their suppliers” and “reach out to BAME communities”.

Ethnically diverse team working together at work

Becoming an anti-racist ally

Racism has mutated in the workplace, and efforts to demolish this discriminatory plague is imperative for employees’ well-being, and ultimately organisational performance. HR and business leaders must realise that there are blind spots in tackling racism in the workplace, and that their DEI strategy may only be addressing symbolic diversity while concealing deeper underlying issues that perpetuates denial about the true inequalities that exists in the workplace.

To roundup, here’s how professionals can take a more proactive stance on race and become a better ally, and move from the creation of equal opportunities to a wider agenda of ending racism in the workplace:

· Increase cultural intelligence

· Illuminate power at play

· Call in bias

· Stay vigilant

For a deeper insight into institutionalised racism, Garrett recommends reading ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge.

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