How to have intelligent conversations about race in the workplace

How do you have an intelligent conversation about race? I use this word intelligent quite deliberately. After George Floyd was unlawfully killed in 2020, conversations about race in the workplace became more commonplace. People across countries and industries became more aware just how deeply wounded our society is by inequality and racial injustice. It’s easy for us all to understand that for many race is quite a sensitive area; possibly even recognise that for some race is a key part of their identity. But it’s a lot harder to really press into why race, in this present day, continues to be a topic that still feels a bit ‘taboo’. Conversations around race are not always comfortable, but they are important. However, we need not only to exercise a bit of linguistic intelligence, we also need to exercise quite a lot of emotional intelligence in dealing with others and intra-personal intelligence, where we are brave enough to understand ourselves, how we feel and where biases based on our own privilege may have found a home.

To help frame how to deal with our everyday conversations, we need to firstly understand how discrimination against race plays out in wider society through racism and how it also intersects with individual identity.

What is racism?

Often when people think about racism they think about the angry individual shouting at someone in a bus, football fans making monkey chants or potentially even the less than friendly neighbour who wonders how you were able to afford living in the neighbourhood. In reality, racism is much deeper than this.

Racism falls under one of the many systems of oppression that occur in society (others for example include, sexism, classism, colonialism etc). It is quite tempting to think that these systems are all different, but one commonality is that they all come together to create advantages for a privileged group. When those who have privilege also have power, they are able to create legal and social structures in society that disadvantage others while simultaneous creating benefits for themselves.

This is why racism is much more than the shouty person on the bus. While disturbing, perhaps more relevant to those of us in the workplace, is the underbelly of racism – those structures that currently remain in place that systematically disadvantaged ethnic minorities.

Here is an often-cited example of structural discrimination in the workplace:
“Discrimination against black Britons and those of south Asia origins – particularly Pakistanis – remain unchanged over almost 50 years” – Centre for Social Investigation, Oxford University, 2018.

A study by experts based at the Centre for Social Investigation at Nuffield College, University of Oxford, found applicants from minority ethnic backgrounds had to send 80% more applications to get a positive response from an employer than a white person of British origin.

We also know from numerous studies that, in general, ethnic minorities are less likely to be employed1, are paid less2, are less likely to be promoted3 and that they are underrepresented in executive and board level posts4. And perhaps most disturbing of all is that almost half of ethnic minorities in the UK have suffered racist language over the last 5 years5.

This is the first step to speaking intelligently about race. It is a significant shift in mindset – moving from accepting that there are disadvantaged people out there and others are doing it, to realising that we are part of and a beneficiary of that oppression. We all need to take deliberate action to actively reduce disadvantage.

Race and individual identity

“Diversity is something no one individual has, but all groups do”- Joe McGrath, American social psychologist
At the Thinking Ahead Institute, we decided to look at identity in greater detail as it related to the diversity in the workplace, recognising that there was much more to this than gender or even ethnicity. It seemed to be the missing piece in understanding why, despite our best intentions, there continued to be significant frustration and in some cases, resentment, around the lack of progress on diversity. In our work, we describe identity using the following model6:

Identity model full

When you are an ethnic minority, you often get pigeon-holed into just what you look like and many forget that there are multiple aspects to your identity. Sometimes I feel like a tired mum, a hard worker, a sympathetic friend, an angry citizen, a black woman and/or all of the above. It never does feel fair for a corporate to tick me off as (i) female and (ii) black and then ignore the rest in a diversity checklist.

And perhaps, just as importantly, by focussing on whole identity, we do not discount the many attributes of those individuals who are not ‘diverse’ (read, white and male).

Race is an important part of identity. But let’s all recognise that it is just one part and we are much more than this. We are all part of this conversation.

So how do you discuss race at work?

In 2019, I worked with the UK’s Investment Association and #talkaboutblack (a part of The Diversity Project in the UK) to issue a report7 highlighting some of the issues faced by black professionals in the investment industry. It was heart-breaking listening in to some of the stories told by both students and senior professionals alike on some of the concerns raised. At the heart of this cries the need for organisations to build a stronger culture8 that focuses on respect for identity and inclusion. Here are some ways that we can do this through engaging in more intelligent conversations around race.

1. We need to break the taboo around race

  • Race is an important part of individual identity and open and authentic conversations help break the taboo. In my experience it is rare for someone to take offense about race if they think you are being authentic. Be mindful of your own privilege fragility9 where you become defensive when your own privilege is challenged. At the same time, it is important to recognise that even the most well-intentioned individual can make mistakes. Ongoing conversation is important to maintain a positive dialogue.
  • Don’t say BAME when you just mean black or Asian. It assumes that all ethnic minorities have similar backgrounds and experiences and generally tends to be unhelpful when trying to address specific issues. Have a conversation to find out what people are comfortable with.

2. Make the values case for diversity, not just the business case

  • We are probably all familiar with the claim: “if we improve gender or ethnic diversity by x%, we will increase our performance by y%. This proves why diversity is important to us”. In her excellent article, The business case for inclusion is bankrupt. Let’s disinvest, Hanna McCloskely points to the problem with this narrative. The argument promotes a ‘model’ group of citizens – a norm which typically consists of white men from privileged backgrounds – to which ‘diverse’ individuals need to live up to and justify their humanity. Now we do know that there is evidence that cognitive diversity (with a healthy dose of inclusion), can improve the performance of a group doing a complex task, but this is a weak argument to justify the need to have improved representational diversity. By making the business case for diversity as our primary motive for inclusion, we are accepting the premise that perhaps there is a reason why these diverse people shouldn’t be included.
  • Instead of working so hard to make the business case, we need to celebrate the values case for diversity. The beliefs that diversity and inclusion is important because we believe in and value all of humanity regardless of race, gender or creed. We need to point to the fact that this is something that we do because it’s the right thing to do – not just the thing that we only do if there is a potential benefit to the status quo.

3. Educate for inclusion (not just unconscious bias)

  • Many unconscious bias training programmes prove ineffective in changing behaviours. We know that online training tends to improve attitudes towards diversity and behaviour primarily to those who were already quite positive about it in the first place10. Organisations need to focus on educating their workforce on some of the deep-seated inequalities that persist in our society. We need deeper thinking on how privilege plays out in our workplaces and look at what we can do to address this.

4. We need to start collecting better data

  • Perhaps most challenging of all is the need to collect better and more contextual data in our own organisations. Without clear data it is difficult to assess where we are today and what needs to happen next. The UK government is currently considering a requirement for firms to publish their ethnicity pay gaps , in a similar fashion to current gender pay gap reporting requirements. The Investment Association, the UK trade body for asset managers, alongside many across other industries, has lent support to the ambition behind this initiative. Organisations should see this as a clarion call for action and to get their houses in order. Additionally, the collection of data should go beyond the quantitative. Storytelling is a powerful tool to help understand the day-to-day experiences of ethnic minorities in the workplace.

Race is not an easy topic. But if we are keen to truly break the taboo and move the dial on change, we need to have deeper and more intelligent conversations around race.

1Employment, fairness at work, and enterprise’, Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, 2021.
Employment, fairness at work, and enterprise’, Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, 2021.
‘One in three BME workers say they have been unfairly turned down for a job’, Trades Union Congress, 2021.
‘Leadership 10,000 report’, Green Park, 2019.
5 Based on the reporting series
‘Bias in Britain’, The Guardian, 2018.
6 For further details on this model see our blog
‘Raising our game: from gender diversity to embracing whole identity’, Thinking Ahead Institute, 2019.
‘Black Voices: building black representation in investment management’, The Investment Association, 2019.
‘The impact of culture on institutional investors: what is effective culture?’, Thinking Ahead Institute, 2019 and ‘The power of culture’, Thinking Ahead Institute, 2020.
9 The term ‘privilege fragility’ was coined by American Robin DiAngelo. She describes this as the range of defensive responses that are exhibited by individuals once their privilege, either as a result of class, gender, race etc, is challenged.
‘The mixed effects of online diversity training’, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, 2019.

Find out more about Marisa Hall