In the UK, tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets, some tearing down statues of people like Edward Colson, an influential Bristolian merchant who was also a slave trader, in defiance of Britain’s colonial past. The pandemic was not going to distract protesters demanding action.
Brands were quick to publicly align with the movement, condemning Floyd’s murder and plastering the hashtag #BLM over Instagram. However, individuals were skeptical. Are these corporations really committed to the cause, or are they merely paying lip service to it?
Purposeful action for profit
The passion from the streets flowed into workplaces and board rooms, with people demanding to see change at every level. Most consumer brands put out a statement in support of Black Lives Matter and many B2B brands also got involved, with the likes of Citrix, HP and Dropbox all making statements of support for the movement.
While the words of support were welcome, the reality of how business is pursuing diversity is starker. In the UK, only 1.5% of top corporate positions are held by people of colour, a statistic that has changed by only 0.1% over eight years.
This figure is surprising on two levels: the first is the obvious question of equality – how, in 2021, are we still so numb to our unconscious biases that the makeup of our workforces doesn’t budge?
The second is that it is now a well-acknowledged fact that having a diverse workforce is good for the bottom line. A diverse team results in a wider range of views and ideas, leading to more innovation and ultimately guiding businesses to better results.
Even the finance world, historically a white-male dominated industry, is acknowledging the necessity to change. In an August 2020 Goldman Sachs podcast, Katie Koch, co-head of the Fundamental Equity business within Goldman Sachs Asset Management summed up the current thinking: “I’m in the business of fundamental investing, which is human-driven investing. And what we’re trying to do every day is create an edge by having a unique perspective relative to the market. One of the ways to ensure that you’re cultivating a varying perspective is by bringing in people with different views and backgrounds.”
Gibran Registe-Charles, CEO and founder of Urban Edge Capital, the only minority-owned hedge fund in Europe, agrees: “Drive businesses economically by pointing out diversity and inclusion, have people from diverse backgrounds in your business to create innovation revenue. You need those ideas from different cultures to differentiate.”
A chance to motivate and change
For all the data, research and reports that highlight injustice, is there the momentum for real change? A year after George Floyd’s death, change has been slow. The UK’s government’s report, ‘The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’, is a stark reminder of this, as Sandra Kerr CBE, race director at Business in the Community (BITC) describes it as, “A missed opportunity – it has some fine words, but nothing which we haven’t seen before.”
However, with centuries of injustice to cut through and decades of institutional racism to repair, this is a marathon not a sprint. Kerr advises leaders how they can get started: “Businesses can bring the action plans to life, and use ethnicity pay gap data to inform the next steps for the progression and distribution of Black, Asian and ethnically diverse talent.
“They can set targets to improve representation in recruitment and promotions, ensuring they are including diverse people on recruitment, promotion and selection panels. They can also check if employees feel like they have a voice and are listened to in the workplace.”
Paula Rhone-Adrien, barrister and BBC expert contributor, agrees that businesses are uniquely positioned to change public attitudes and ignite action. “There is nothing quite like the power of a shareholder and consumer to focus the minds of those in charge,” she argues. “We’re all stakeholders in forcing change, and these goals have to be pushed assertively with conviction as we’ve seen topflight leaders do. People can demand change by acting from within and publicly, to move the businesses in the direction that aligns with their values.”
Ultimately, there’s no easy solution or quick wins to resolve these deep rooted issues that are centuries in the making. Business leaders need to dig deep, support workforces and communities with a humanity-first approach. The more that they are able to learn from all sections of society, the more they will be able to push the needle for the generations ahead.
Practical steps to build diverse workforces
- Assistance. Source reputable advice and guidance from the government and specialists who’ve created guides for businesses. Many are sector specific, so assess whether these can be brought into your business if there isn’t a framework for your sector.
- Feedback. Soul search internally, collaborate with the workforce, be sensitive to views on how business is managing change, and pay attention to how it can do better.
- Measure. Set realistic timelines to implement action and be clear in managing expectations.
- Report. Review progress by reporting back to all stakeholders throughout the business. Share challenges and success working with independents to reassess for honest, transparent and third-party assessment.
- Transform. Change will not be achieved without resistance, especially for large organisations. Plan and execute with conviction, but also with sensitivity to individual difference.