Leaders must avoid cliches if black careers matter

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UK business leaders need to focus on action not messages if they truly want to effect change and improve fairness for black employees, warns Professor Binna Kandola.

“Try to look bit sadder please. You’ve still got a hint of a smile. Remember, this picture will be next to your statement on Black Lives Matter. That’s it – we can use this one.”

OK, this might not have happened word-for-word. But I can’t help imagining the conversations that must have taken place at the various photoshoots with senior business leaders in the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, to go alongside their new company statements, declaring support for the movement. One such statement that caught my eye was that of Kevin Ellis, PwC’s UK chairman, in which he discusses how “the danger when you’re uncomfortable is that you shy away from talking”.

Wise words – sympathetic words – alongside a suitably despondent image that might have been taken at a shoot like the above.

However, the message also contained what have quickly become very familiar, if not cliched, phrases. “We need to redouble the efforts… we all have a responsibility… we all have a long way to go.”

It’s difficult to buy into a message such as this, when, behind closed doors, many of the organisations delivering them have done so little in the past to suggest any kind of sincerity.

I remember, only two short years ago, reporting my experience of a racist event at such an organisation to both its chair and head of people. This important meeting to discuss racism, which was scheduled to last an hour, was over in less than 45 minutes. Empathy was necessary in such situations, I was told. So, it was important that I looked at this from their perspective. It had been dealt with. Job done. The complacency of the leadership then, when presented with an opportunity to tackle such an important issue, makes their response now utterly hypocritical.

What’s especially troubling though, is that not all organisational racism even takes place behind closed doors. Returning to the example of PwC, the company’s ethnicity pay gap was 13.5%, marginally below their gender pay gap of 14%. The bonus ethnicity gap was a whopping 33.8%.

Ellis’s carefully worded, yet significant, statement on this particular controversy was that “the pay gap is entirely driven by the fact there are more non-BAME staff in senior higher paid roles and more BAME staff in junior administrative roles”.

The smugness, however, is often still there, reminding everyone that plans are in place, that efforts are being redoubled and, by implication, that progress is being made”

Statements such as this are paper thin, attempting to pass analysis off as nothing more than a description. They may sound sincere, especially from a firm that is so proud of its slogan “Being colour brave”. But notice the absence of the word “black”. The word “white” is even avoided, preferring instead to use the tortuous “non-BAME”. Remember, messages such as these are rarely off-the-cuff, but are pre-prepared, carefully planned and will have been through several drafts. And this was the best that they could come up with.

But why do so many organisations feel the need to make a statement such as this? For some, you can sense the authenticity; that it is something to do with their values and that they are disappointed in themselves. For others, the motivation is external – they make a statement because they feel they have to. The language may have evolved, but the messages delivered by leaders such as Ellis – or, at least, their diversity and press teams – even skirt around the word “racism”.

The smugness, however, is often still there, reminding everyone that plans are in place, that efforts are being redoubled and, by implication, that progress is being made. Likewise, the word “we” is often used when talking about the way that firms have viewed race in the past. At no point do the majority of these leaders take responsibility, though. It’s everyone’s responsibility, for sure, but leaders need to set the example.

Unconscious bias, as Ellis suggests, is often a problem, but it’s not the only issue. The problem isn’t just that people do these things, but that they are allowed to do them by the people who they work with. These behaviours are perpetuated by HR teams and, indeed, some D&I teams who do not see ethnicity as an issue, so that when a complaint is made, it can be swept aside. Or worse, the victim will be told that they are playing “the race card”.

For too long, leaders have treated racism as a thing of the past, and consequently, there is no need in their minds to take further action. They talk a good game, but their actions belie their words. Being forced to pay attention to an issue they believed consigned to history could be a wake-up call. But, depending on their true motivation, it may be just another temporary ploy while they wait for the storm to blow over.

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Binna Kandola

About Binna Kandola

Binna Kandola, founder of business psychology consultancy Pearn Kandola.
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