Race at Work, time to take action now

By - World Infrastructure Journal

Race at Work, time to take action now

In the past year, the severity and widespread extent of racial injustice was thrown directly into the spotlight as tens of thousands took to the streets to protest in cities across the UK. With widespread discussions on institutional racism and discrimination in the workplace, the third Race at Work Survey has come at an apt moment. Before the survey closes on the 30th June 2021, WIJ spoke to Sandra Kerr CBE, Race Director at Business in the Community about why all businesses are encouraged to take part and how we can all better tackle racial discrimination in the workplace.

In honour of the 20th anniversary of their campaign for racial inclusion, Business in the Community launched their first survey in 2015. Created in collaboration with employers, this set out to overcome the research gap on employment progression based on ethnicity and background as well as how this can significantly impact experiences in the workplace. With over 24,000 responses in its first year, this was a revolutionary study that highlighted the extent of racial disparities in UK business which went on to form the basis of the landmark McGregor Smith Review.


Despite being updated again in 2018 (a personal request from government) it became clear that although more discussion was taking place on these issues, not enough action was happening. The results showed that just 33 per cent of those in leadership positions were from BAME backgrounds despite similar qualifications and experience. Neither talent nor education translates to progression the way that it statistically does for their White counterparts.

Yet even when those from BAME backgrounds reach leadership positions, racial discrimination still plays a factor in their work experience. Ms Kerr explained that across all levels, from junior colleagues to seniority, bullying and harassment was a particularly concerning area that failed to improve at all in 2018. It is disconcerting that BAME leaders were 10 percentage points more likely to put equality as a key objective of their work as Ms Kerr said “if you really want to drive change, it needs to be from everyone. All leaders at the top table must be accountable for driving forward and making sure things get done.

A change in commitment

There have been some notable changes since the last survey however, especially regarding commitment. In 2018, just 85 organisations had signed up to the Race at Work Charter which sets out five commitments to improving racial inclusion at work, but this now currently sits at 727 organisations. Over 400 of these have signed up in the last year and it now covers over 5.7 million employees. Ms Kerr is hopeful that the latest survey will now show vital progression as many companies were spurred in to action after widespread protests last summer and an increase in discussion on racial disparities.

There are three areas, she explained, that businesses must focus on:

  • Leadership and diverse voices. More diversity must be included at the top table as it not only leads to 36 per cent better financial returns but also more inclusive systems, processes, and products. Technology is one area in particular which if diversity is not included from its conception can lead to in-built biases in the product. It is vital that racial inclusion is encouraged at every stage of conception through to delivery in every industry.
  • Allyship. This is one topic that has made its first appearance in the survey this year and is something that employers should embrace. Individuals are keen to help and so must be given the resources and space to do so.
  • Listen to employees. Companies must be open to not only listening to the experiences of their employees but taking these challenges and concerns and implementing change.

Ms Kerr recognised that this may be a daunting task for businesses who are unsure how to begin talking about race in professional spaces but not something that should be feared. She explained that crucially it is about understanding common humanity and should start by building bonds and relationships. This starts with conversations whether it be about shared interests, heritage, as well as ultimately listening to the lived experience of BAME colleagues.

Sector disparities

There are a number of industries who are already leading the way in this. Professional and legal services were cited in particular as already implementing mentoring systems, pay gap reporting, and more diverse recruiting.

Others, however, still have a long way to go and construction and engineering are notably lacking in racial inclusivity. Despite growing numbers of BAME students in these fields they ultimately do not end up in the industry and is something that needs further investigation. Ms Kerr also cited the civil service for good representation at lower levels, but BAME employees do not progress within the system. She explained that it is crucial that all of these industries investigate how once individuals are in the sector, this talent can be unlocked and retained.

Government action

Action by government could be extremely beneficial in this area, specifically in implementing ethnicity pay gap reporting. Despite government promising to make this mandatory after an open letter was sent from 30 Chief Executives requesting the move, this has failed to come into action. She explained that this is obviously not a silver bullet, but it enables employers to think about where the disparities are and ensures it stays at the top of the agenda.

Ms Kerr also explained that government can play a significant role through their actions, specifically by wagering their spending power. By making racial inclusion a key component of any contract, they can influence other employers to take action that will benefit the labour market. She cited the London 2012 Olympics as a specific example of this which was the most diverse Games ever because the government conditioned any contract with inclusive and local recruitment.

Making these decisions across all levels of government and every industry will be crucial and likely to be informed from data. Evidence which highlights the necessity of making these changes will be crucial and is why Ms Kerr urges all those in employment to take part in the survey. By all taking the chance to inform and make a difference it is hoped that racial inclusion can be vitally improved in every workplace.

Fill out the survey now by 30 June 2021.

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