Racial inclusion: The D&I journey of HMRC

Wed 24 Nov 2021

Racial inclusion: The D&I journey of HMRC

Gillian Smith, Deputy Director, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at HM Revenue and Customs, draws attention to the lessons learned in the implementation of the department’s Race Equality Action Plan

 By Murielle Gonzalez

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is one of the UK's largest organisations — it employs around 66,000 people across the country. Moreover, government data published in the research report 'Navigating the labyrinth' revealed that HMRC is one of the most socio-economically diverse departments. The makeup of its workforce makes HMRC one of the most interesting organisations to look at through the lens of diversity and inclusion.

Dods Diversity & Inclusion speaks with HMRC's Gillian Smith (pictured), Deputy Director, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, to learn more about the department's take on D&I. She reveals the challenges encountered and draws attention to the lessons learned along the way.

Portrait photo of Gillian Smith

All hands on deck

The newest D&I journey of HMRC started in 2019 when the department decided to focus its efforts on racial inclusion. The decision was made following the Respect at Work review, which uncovered inequalities in several areas — race equality was among the top concerns.

The report identified that employees showed great dedication and pride in their work, but HMRC was not consistently living up to its ambition to be a great place to work. People working in HMRC tolerated a significant amount of 'low level' poor behaviours that would not be acceptable in other environments. In some cases, HMRC colleagues experienced 'abusive' and 'abrasive' behaviours.

Smith explains: "Before establishing a programme of work to address race disparities and re-set behavioural expectations, we conducted a thorough review of Respect at Work, carried out a Race Disparity Audit, and significant organisational listening with Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic colleagues. The initiatives led to the creation of the Race Equality Action Plan (REAP)."

HMRC built 'Our Commitments' — a set of principles that guide how the staff treats one another — to help make HMRC a great place to work. The commitments were formulated through engagement with colleagues throughout HMRC.

The sheer size of the task speaks for itself. Last autumn, around 40,000 HMRC colleagues took part in a conversation about race and inclusion. "Leaders also took part in events to listen to personal stories from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic colleagues, building empathy, understanding and motivation for change," says Smith. "This has contributed to a greater willingness to share experiences, to listen and understand."

HMRC is continuing to make progress against its REAP. Almost 50,000 colleagues have participated in race equality learning, and people policies and processes are being reviewed to eliminate any disparities in opportunity. Smith reveals that work is well under way to make recruitment more inclusive, and HMRC is continuing to evaluate the impact of the new measures.

Overcoming key challenges

HMRC's D&I journey started with a good amount of data. Moreover, the department gathered information that had not previously been drawn together to understand its workforce better. The move led to a single document that presented a factual account of outcomes for colleagues in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups compared to White colleagues. 

Smith notes that data was not being used alongside stories that colleagues were sharing about their own lived experiences. "I strongly believed that as an evidence-driven and analytical organisation, a compelling data story was needed," she says. "I knew this would likely corroborate what colleagues were reporting."

Smith proposed the audit and found support for the idea. The results were compelling and presented alongside personal stories by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic colleagues to the executive committee. "From that moment, there was no question that this would be a top priority for them," she recalls.

Work plan in action

HMRC's Race Equality Action Plan takes a holistic view, reviewing and improving policy, process, and behaviours right across the employee lifecycle. 

The plan Equality Objectives aligns with the government's Public Sector Equality Duty to be inclusive, respectful and representative. It is both evidence- and insight-led and outcome-focused. 

Smith explains that the plan’s four pillars of activity include process improvement, learning and development, accountability and governance, communicating and inclusive culture.

Smith notes that early actions included promoting a learning culture, with emphasis on self-education to improve understanding. These efforts encouraged being curious to create competence in thinking and talking about racism and racial equality in the workplace.  

In addition, refreshed HR policies and guidance have helped the department ensure inclusion is embedded in the organisation. Smith explains: "For example, there have been changes to raising and resolving concerns, our reward structure, and move to hybrid working have benefited people in under-represented groups. We have refreshed our guidance on making inclusive decisions, introduced changes in our recruitment and selection processes, provided learning resources and have been transparent within the organisation about how representation has changed quarter by quarter." 

Smith notes that perhaps the most significant action has been to train volunteer change agents throughout HMRC to facilitate learning on race quality and allyship.

"Using around 240 volunteers — each giving a small but regular amount of their time — almost 50,000 colleagues have now completed the learning,” explains Smith. This initiative was developed in-house and in collaboration with HMRC’s Race network and trade unions.

Smith says the department is beginning to see behaviour change because of this work plan. "Colleagues are reporting more support peer-to-peer to challenge inappropriate behaviour. And colleagues tell us that they feel better equipped to provide allyship."

Quick-fire questions

How does being an ally fit with your plan?

Being an ally/advocate plays an important role in challenging racist or otherwise inappropriate behaviour. 

We want colleagues to support each other in addressing the abusive and abrasive behaviours highlighted in the Respect at Work report. This approach included being clear about our expectations of each other, which are set in Our Commitments; helping people understand why this is key to improving inclusion, engagement, and business performance; and giving them the tools and confidence to step up through our learning opportunities.

How do you measure progress?

Our work on race, and indeed all our work on equality, diversity and inclusion, is measured against our Equality Objectives. But we are also measuring against the Respect at Work findings and Our Commitments, which are:

  • Be fair, kind, and human
  • Not create fear in others
  • Include people regardless of difference
  • Work together, recognising our common goal
  • Have honest conversations with respect

We use Civil Service inclusion surveys and the Civil Service People Survey to help us measure progress on how inclusive and respectful it feels to work in HMRC. We supplement this with ongoing insight gathered from staff networks, unions, and other organisations.

We monitor concerns and complaints from our colleagues and outcomes from a range of people processes. We also collect and share aggregated reports on representation data. 

What outcomes have you seen to date?

Our workforce data shows we have increased ethnic minority representation from 14% before the Race Equality Action Plan to 16% in 16 months. Our representation at Senior Civil Service level has also increased from 9.6% to 11.2%.

What milestones achievement can you highlight?

Strong signalling of the commitment from senior leaders was essential. Consistently communicating this has been a challenge in such a large and dispersed organisation, and at a time when most of us were working from home. But perseverance has paid off. 

Local actions have also been important, such as establishing local People groups, allowing colleagues to be part of the decision-making process on local initiatives that affect them. And more recently, we've introduced local success measures for representation at each level in the organisation of people from minority groups. 

I think moving from talking to action has also been important, supported by transparency of data. Seeing emerging results will give us even more confidence that we can make the changes we aspire for.

What is your advice to organisations embarking on a D&I journey?

Don't be risk averse. D&I is difficult work — it will take a lot of energy right across the organisation, and you will meet resistance.  

If you have a compelling vision and a good evidence base to support your action, pursue the change with confidence. Don't underestimate how long it will take — this is a marathon, not a sprint. It may take many sprint races along the way! 

And ensure that it is a whole organisation endeavour with top-table commitment. Importantly, the burden of the work must not fall on the shoulders of the underrepresented groups.

Looking ahead

Speaking with Gillian Smith is uplifting because her words and actions are heartfelt. "We can't afford to lose our focus or divert our attention — at least not yet," she says. Smith recognises that the department has come a long way, but the journey has only just begun. 

"Our Equality Objectives are set until 2024, and these will guide our prioritisation. We will build out from our successes in reducing disparity for our Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic colleagues, and need to ensure we generate improvements for others for whom outcomes have historically been unfair," she concludes. 

HMRC has conducted a disability disparity audit, has completed a review of its workplace adjustments processes, and is closely monitoring the impact of other changes across all protected characteristics.

Race to Equality: Achieving Racial Inclusion at Work on 9 December offers an immersive day of CPD-certified training and a platform for honest discussions about where to start and how to approach the conversation about supporting BAME colleagues at work.


Some sessions you don't want to miss:

  • Cultural Intelligence workshop: Working confidently in different cultures
  • 'Good Diversity' workshop: Achieving best practice in the recruitment and development of ethnic minority staff
  • Ethnicity pay gap reporting

Visit the event page, and book your place.



Murielle Gonzalez, content strategy manager at Dods Diversity & Inclusion, is an experienced journalist and editor. She can be reached on murielle.gonzalez@dodsgroup.com.

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