Race to Equality: 6 Steps for Supporting BAME Colleagues

Fri 07 Feb 2020

Race to Equality: 6 Steps for Supporting BAME Colleagues

At January’s ‘Supporting BAME Colleagues in the Workplace’ event, we were faced with sobering facts, but also equipped with significant tools and insight to address them. The UK’s Ethnicity Pay Gap currently rests at 3.8%, a figure which has not moved since 2013. The BEAGLE study of word association outlines how extensive unconscious bias is in our culture. On the other hand, race equality in the UK could add up to £24 billion per annum to the UK economy and by the event’s close, attendees received crucial insights from speakers and peers in how to achieve such a reality.

This conference saw an audience of HR professionals, line managers and D&I practitioners come together with expert speakers to learn how better to support the development and retention of BAME staff. Some audience members identified as BAME, whilst almost as many did not – an encouraging sign, as allies and engagement from across our population is vital for the achievement of D&I goals.

‘Create community’ and ‘give ambition a pathway’ are two phrases which go a long way to summarise the recurring themes of the day. As Asif Sadiq (Head of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging, The Telegraph) explained, teams which experience a sense of belonging are three and a half times more productive. Tony Vickers-Byrne (Chief Advisor for HR Practice, CIPD) reminded us that compassionate management and leadership is crucial in advancing change and equality, both at work and in the wider world. Yvonne Dowie-Shosanya (Head of Race and Minority Ethnic Talent, Ministry of Justice), meanwhile, emphasised the centrality of structural adjustments in achieving progress, and Dianne Greyson (Director, Equilibrium Mediation Consulting) stressed the importance of data collection, reporting and awareness around the Ethnicity Pay Gap. 

Holistic change requires decisive action, and there are clear steps which organisations must take to ensure that BAME staff can achieve their full potential. Below, we have outlined some of the crucial insights which were shared thoughout the day.

Acknowledge Difference

A first step in advancing progress is to recognise difference. Gift Ajimokun (Top 10 BAME Workplace Hero 2019, The Ethnicity Awards) emphasised that her utopia is no longer needing to discuss race in the workplace. However, discussions around disadvantage, privilege and difference have yet to begin in earnest in many organisations. Such conversation is a prerequisite for further action, tackling the barriers which BAME staff face. Bias, discrimination and racism must be recognised in order to be addressed.

As Yvonne Dowie-Shosanya affirmed, failing to acknowledge the realities and experiences of BAME colleagues can cause harm. In such instances, colleagues feel encouraged to ‘cover’ their difference and cannot bring their whole selves to work, with implications for both mental and physical health.

Although non-BAME colleagues may avoid conversations around difference out of a sense of awkwardness or fear of causing offence, it was emphasised that such conversations open pathways to education. By showing curiosity and trusting good intentions, understanding can arise, as well as new connections.

Adapt structures and re-examine systems

In order to ensure that BAME staff can thrive and have their voices heard, it is vital that organisations ‘disrupt their processes’, as Asif Sadiq put it. To realise greater BAME representation and progression, there must be decisive action around adapting organisational culture and structure to facilitate such change. To paraphrase Yvonne Dowie- Shosanya, if the system is not working, change the system.

This understanding was reflected in the delegate contributions during Gamiel Yafai’s (Managing Director, Diversity Marketplace) ‘Good Diversity Workshop’. Our audience of HR professionals, line managers and D&I practitioners identified clear progression pathways and access programmes as crucial elements in ensuring true inclusion of BAME colleagues.

Secure senior representation and buy-in

Senior BAME representation and board-level support for racial equality initiatives were also identified by most groups during Gamiel Yafai’s workshop as critical factors in supporting the development of BAME staff.

‘You can’t be what you can’t see’, one group stressed; it can be challenging to maintain ambition and confidence without role models. Furthermore, if an organisation lacks senior BAME representation, prospective employees have an immediate expectation of a less inclusive company culture. Advertising all promotions internally, and head-hunting within your workforce for diverse talent were suggested as measures for overcoming this, as were diverse panels and the Rooney Rule (requiring there to be at least one ethnic minority candidate on every shortlist).

Asif Sadiq also stressed that senior leaders should be authentic and admit when they don’t have an answer. Doing so fosters trust and demonstrates a genuine desire for improvement – as does providing sponsorship for BAME staff, which fosters greater understanding and ensures that representation is ultimately achieved.

‘Put the heart back into HR’

A key tenet of Tony Vickers-Byrne's presentation was the importance of ‘putting the heart back into HR’. Tony outlined that trust is markedly low across all groups in society, and that HR can often become preoccupied by process and systems, forgetting that people are their primary charge. Only by providing compassionate leadership and management, and by seeing people as individuals rather than numbers or statistics, can decisions be made to reflect and protect the dignity of our workforces.

This stance was echoed by our chair, Rob Neil (Head of Embedding Culture Change, Department for Education), and by Asif Sadiq, who affirmed that belonging ought to be a cornerstone of D&I practice and mindset. Whilst it’s difficult to change the world, we can make our organisations better places to be, which can make a significant impact on our employees’ wellbeing.

Just as process and statistics can only bring HR so far, Sadiq emphasised that artificial intelligence is only as strong as the teams designing it. A racial bias has been detected in driverless cars, for example. Effective problem-solving and serving a broad consumer base requires diversity of thought and perspective. By engaging our humanity and emotional intelligence, connections can be made, community maintained, and diversity, inclusion, and belonging achieved.

Appreciate intersectionality

Intersectionality was a term which recurred on several occasions throughout the day. A key learning point was that identities and experiences are multi-faceted. A person may identify as BAME, but they may also be a woman, or have a disability. Furthermore, a white man may be neurodiverse or LGBT.

There are nuances to privilege and disadvantage, and each person’s background and experience can inform their perspective in different ways. Appreciation of this can foster understanding -- Yvonne Dowie- Shosanya used a quote from Mary Beard about the historical and structural barriers which women have faced to illustrate the experience of BAME people.

Furthermore, individuals rarely fit into one box – though their needs are often determined on an organizational level in that way. Asif Sadiq pointed out that viewing diversity primarily in terms of categories is limiting. Certain disparities within the BAME term may go overlooked, whilst certain groups – white men in particular – may come to feel as though D&I does not include, need or have anything to offer them, ultimately leaving the D&I process incomplete.

Support staff networks

Staff networks were identified, by speakers and delegates alike, as key tools in fostering the voices of BAME staff and of encouraging greater understanding within organisations. Such networks have an important role to play in facilitating the important conversations already outlined above, both with colleagues and senior staff. They can also, as Yvonne Dowie-Shosanya suggested, act as a critical friend and advisor to the organsiation as it strives for structural and cultural change.

They are also vehicles for cultural celebration and community engagement, fostering ties between colleagues and advancing education around difference. Networks nurture allies as well as identities, ensuring that bringing one’s whole self to work as well as knowing one’s neighbor can become a reality. Networks can be crucial talent pipelines, enabling staff members to advance and hone skillsets, and for future leaders to come to the fore, thus achieving diverse representation now and in time to come.

To revisit the introduction, ‘create community’ and ‘give ambition a pathway’ are two phrases which go a long way to summarise the recurring themes of our ‘Supporting BAME Colleagues in the Workplace’ event. Creating community ensures that D&I is a responsibility and opportunity for everyone. Acceptance and education, as well as greater representation at senior-level and through networks, changes a culture for the better. However, structural and procedural change is also vital for progress to be realised – if current culture and process are not enabling the long-term retention and progression of BAME staff, they must be re-addressed.


Our upcoming ‘Supporting BAME Colleagues in the Workplace: Race to Equality’ conferences will be taking place in Birmingham on 10th September and in London on 22nd October.

We are looking forward to welcoming Rob Neil back as chair for ‘Fostering Staff Networks: Engaging Staff and Managing Business Goals’, which will be held in partnership with the Power of Staff Networks in London on 13th May, National Staff Networks Day.

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