Let’s Talk Race: The Elephant in the Room

By Rob Neil, Head of Culture Change and Leadership, Department for Education.

"Not everything that is faced can be changed, yet nothing can be changed until it is faced" James Baldwin

This uncomfortable and imposing truth is one which applies to many organisations now wrestling with the challenge of having conversations about race at work. Sadly, some respond by looking the other way and simply hoping the ‘elephant in the room’ will depart quietly. Those who take this approach ultimately never even try holding such potentially transformational conversations.

My name is Rob Neil and I am the Head of Culture Change and Leadership at the Department for Education.

As part of the programme for the CIPD’s inaugural Festival of Work, I was invited by the fabulously talented Nichole Higgins, Co-Chair of the CIPD’s ethnicity action group EmbRACE, to help design and facilitate an interactive session to help people tackle this elephant in the room within their organisations.

The excited and immediate uptake after the session was first announced emphasised the importance of the issue to many and affirmed the thirst to see something change.

But this should not come as a surprise. The overwhelming evidence, both anecdotal and empirical, is that you are up to four times more likely to receive a lower performance rating in the workplace if you are from a BAME background.[1] The same body of evidence reports disproportionate outcomes for BAME staff with respect to:

  • representation at senior levels
  • opportunities to work at higher levels on temporary promotions, and
  • in-year reward and recognition.

The sad reality for the vast majority of BAME staff is that their employee experience is a lesser one compared to that of their white colleagues.[2]

Against this backdrop, our session’s main aim was to prompt a conversation about race. Our planning group met and agreed that our goals were to encourage, inspire and, if necessary, provoke an honest discussion about race at work. My role on the day was to spark the conversation, to challenge everyone to look that elephant in the eye and embrace the very real issues about race in the workplace.

Having framed the three drivers of change as moral (the heart), legislative (the head) and economic (the pocket), the workshop participants were then divided into small groups of between 5-8 people on separate tables for facilitated discussions, focused on specific keywords like belonging, unconscious bias, positive action and data collection. The feedback in plenary was positive as it revealed an acknowledgement of the status quo and a genuine willingness to tackle the issues by delivering more innovative practice. Some delegates shared aspects of what they were already doing to combat racism in the workplace, for example, moving beyond online bias training and rolling out face-to-face inclusion training, mandating ethnically diverse recruitment panels and implementing reverse mentoring programmes aimed at encouraging the exchange of cultures in the workplace and inspiring sponsorship beyond traditional norms.

By the end of the session the overwhelming consensus was that together we can make a positive difference within our respective organisations. Indeed, the exciting truth is that many of us across all ethnicities are now starting to talk about race in a competent, comfortable and confident way.

One participant who shared their feedback with us said: ‘Thank you so much, this session was inspirational and moving. So powerful it made me cry! Absolutely a turning point for me and I'm still thinking about it after returning to my office.’

The elephant has been acknowledged and the conversations have begun!

You can watch the highlights from the CIPD Festival of Work inclusion workshop on the issue of race in the workplace here.

[1] Race at Work 2018, Business in the Community, October 2018.

[2] See Race in the workplace: The McGregor-Smith Review, Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, February 2017; Race Disparity Audit, Cabinet Office, October 2017 (Revised March 2018); Race at Work 2018, Business in the Community, October 2018.

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  • I very much agree. In so many organisations I’ve been into that have done online UB training, staff say it hadn’t changed their behaviour or outcomes. I think we need to call it Unconscious and Implicit Bias which is what I cover in my F2F sessions with leaders and managers. Also thanks Rob for the shout out re the role of reverse mentoring and sponsorship programmes for developing and retaining BME talent. This is a niche of mine; I’ve been running these for years before the McGregor Review and would love to support more companies in implementing these effectively, successfully and sustainably!

  • Well done Rob delighted to see the impact you are having.  So sad to see those shocking statistics yet hear from well meaning (white) clients, colleagues and even friends their shock at any suggestion of unfairness. 'We don't have racism here!' - it's subtle, its compounded and accumulative and clearly it's very much still there. If I can help at any point please give me a call & you 'Stay strong!'