What did the Race Commission tell employers about bias?

Protestors at a Black Lives Matter protest last year in London
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The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’ report has been widely condemned for its ‘whitewashing’ of many problems in society but when it comes to HR and business, some of its findings give food for thought, reports Adam McCulloch

The resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s adviser on race, could not have come at a more uncomfortable moment for Number 10.

Downing Street’s special adviser for civil society and communities, Samuel Kasumu, resigned last week but only informed colleagues this week, just as the government published its Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, a report that proved controversial.

The government was quick to distance Kasumu’s resignation from the report saying the two developments were completely unrelated, but today Lord Woolley, director of Operation Black Vote and former chairman of the Race Disparity Unit’s advisory group, contradicted the official line and said there was “a crisis in Number 10 when it comes to acknowledging and dealing with racial equality” and that Kasumu had become disheartened. “I don’t think it’s any coincidence,” he said.

Kasumu had previously threatened to resign in February because he felt equalities minister Kemi Badenoch had breached the Ministerial Code without any response from the government, with her comments about a Huffington Post journalist. He had written: “I fear for what may become of the [Conservative] party in the future by choosing to pursue a politics steeped in division.”

The Commission’s report had already attracted plenty of negative comment before the news of Kasumu’s decision to quit his role.

Its key finding that, while racism and racial injustice still exist, “we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”, has been the subject of intense criticism.

Its rejection of the language around Black Lives Matter is also highly controversial, particularly statements such as: “Phrases like ‘white privilege’ and ‘white fragility’ imply that it is white people’s attitudes and behaviours that primarily cause the disadvantage experienced by ethnic minorities. It also reinforces the perception that being an ethnic minority in the UK is to be treated unfairly by default. The evidence we have studied does not support this.”

David Lammy MP was commissioned by former prime ministers Theresa May and David Cameron to produce a report on discrimination within the policing and criminal justice systems.

Published in September 2017, most of the report’s recommendations have not been implemented despite the government stating that they would be. Lammy pointed out that many of the report’s measurements of race discrimination, such as the proportion of children in prison from black and minority backgrounds, had actually worsened.

The new report marks a complete change in direction from the government, away from the Lammy findings and towards an emphasis on presenting the UK’s achievements in racial equality and drawing attention to segments of the white population falling behind – “another revelation from our dive into the data was just how stuck some groups from the white majority are,” says the study.

Much of it echoed women and equalities minister Liz Truss’s criticism of the Equality Act last December in which she said: “Techniques like unconscious bias training, quotas and diversity statements … do nothing to make the workplace fundamentally fairer.” Halima Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, a racial equality think tank, said: “Liz Truss’s attempts to ‘overhaul’ the equalities work in the UK is nothing short of a whitewashing of British history and its relationship with race.”

In the new report’s wake Lammy tweeted he was “tired of the endless debate about whether structural racism exists with little desire to actually address it. We are being gaslighted.”

Workplace diversity

But what of business’s view of the report? The authors recognise bias at work and cite figures showing that people with names that suggest they come from an ethnic minority have to write 1.6 letters of application before getting a call back for every letter for people with “white” names.

However, the commission draws an oddly worded conclusion about such application tests, stating “While they show discrimination against names that are recognised as not being traditionally British, it is unclear if this effect is about race, class or perceived foreign culture.”

Although it is critical of unconscious bias training, it praises more comprehensive attempts to introduce fairer recruitment practices and the need to tackle bias in the workplace. But the emphasis, again, is on progress. It stated: “The pay and employment story has been a broadly positive one in the last quarter of a century. There has been a gradual convergence on the white average in employment, pay and entry into the middle class, with some groups overtaking the white majority and others somewhat underperforming.”

Many larger businesses may have been preparing to introduce ethnicity pay gap reporting. However, according to the review the pay gap between ethnic minority and white employees had shrunk to 2.3%, its lowest since 2012. “It is clear that pay gap reporting as it is currently devised for gender cannot be applied to ethnicity,” it concluded.

Pay gap reporting

According to the CIPD this is a missed opportunity to improve racial equality in the workplace. Peter Cheese, the HR body’s chief executive, said: “As the commission’s report highlights, issues of racism are very complex, but it also states that ‘overt and outright’ racism persists in the UK. Therefore, it’s crucial that employers take steps to ensure there is racial equality in their workplaces and tackle discrimination where it exists.

“This includes ensuring that progression and pay is fair regardless of people’s race, other personal characteristics or background, which is why we’re disappointed that the commission has not gone further and recommended the introduction of ethnicity pay reporting and greater transparency. Racial equality at work is not just about participation in employment but also about progression into more senior roles. Pay reporting can highlight organisations and sectors where this is not happening, providing key information for employers on where they need to focus attention.”

Cheese praised aspects of the report, saying its focus “on advancing fairness and evidence-based practices in the workplace is welcomed. We look forward to working with the government to help develop guidance on the people management and development approaches that are key to improving inclusion and diversity at work.”

‘Denying the experiences of black people’

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady fundamentally disagreed with the report’s findings. She said: “Institutional and structural racism exists in the UK, in both the labour market and wider society.

“Black and minority ethnic workers are far more likely than white workers to be in low-paid, insecure jobs – such as temporary and agency jobs or zero hours contracts. And black and minority ethnic workers have been far more likely to be exposed to Covid infection and far more likely to die – because they are far more likely to be in frontline roles.”

She accused the commission of denying the experiences of black and minority ethnic workers and of “being complacent about the UK’s progress towards being an anti-racist society”. She called for the introduction of mandatory ethnicity pay gap action plans and the banning of zero hours contracts.

These, however, could be described as somewhat sweeping statements. By digging deeper into the report it could be argued there are measures proposed that are far more effective in the long term when it comes to tackling race discrimination in the workplace than the unconscious bias “quick fix” approach.

Diverse recruitment

The report’s authors, for example, praise law firms’ combined approach of blind screening and the Contextual Recruitment System developed by Rare Recruitment. Many firms have adopted Rare’s system in recruiting candidates from diverse backgrounds. “This initiative was considered important in helping the legal profession in particular to reduce the evidenced racial inequalities that exist when recruiting young people,” it stated.

In Diverse Company, which contributed to the report, praised it for pinpointing why unconscious bias training was ineffective and proposed an alternative model for tackling unfairness. Its CEO, Johanna Beresford, agreed that people’s unconscious bias was at play in the workplace but to tackle it, far more immersive approaches needed to be taken. In Diverse’s cultural inclusion maturity model was raised by the report’s authors as a good example. The report said: “The bespoke model … is focused on driving consistent and meaningful behaviour changes in a measurable way, and tailored to meet respective business needs.”

Beresford added: “Our model addresses the issue of fairness in the workplace, across all aspects of diversity and intersectionality. We measure inclusion, diversity and employee experience by analysing team cultures, leaders’ behaviours and the organisational system (policy and processes), providing employers with clear recommendations proven to increase inclusion, engagement and diversity.”

On ethnicity pay gap reporting Beresford did not commit herself because In Diverse did not contribute to that part of the report. However, she did say: “The problem often with ethnic pay reporting is the data is incomplete as disclosure of ethnicity is voluntary, therefore any calculation will not be accurate.”

While the report has provoked strong reactions from many over its broad brush conclusions about society, which are politically convenient for this Conservative government, it could be argued that for business and HR it contains confirmation that by using sophisticated tools to tackle bias and discrimination – perhaps even “white privilege” – the Commission’s authors have struck some right notes.

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