Racial equality at work: Shouldn’t we be talking about power?

Is race just one form of a growing list of discriminating subcategories? Can courageous conversations about inclusion help us build innovative and resilient organisations?

Women's march poster

I had been looking forward to a dinner hosted by the CIPD on the issues of race and power. I organised my flight from Sweden to be there and prepared my intro on how society and the workplace were messed up, and how #MeToo was happening every day in the form of micro bullying. I had 10 ideas on how to change the world of work system, using the current ‘inflection point’ (Mercer research) as an opportunity for change.

Despite my preparation a little voice in my head told me I was an imposter to be talking about race. I was reassured by my conviction that the real problem was about the abuse of power and issues of social mobility. Race and power abuse are visceral and present in every organisation – this is no easy topic. There is a delusion of inclusion in most responsible organisations because we are hiding behind labels – the courageous conversations are not happening enough.

I have always been a strong advocate for workplaces where difference is celebrated and wellbeing made a priority. After seeing colleagues being bullied early in my career I was inspired to move from marketing to HR, to help address such abuses of power. I have also spent more time living outside of the UK – where I was born – than inside. I know what it is like to be part of non-dominant groups, to sometimes feel inferior. This lived experience helps me treat people for who they are as people, and therefore be a better Chief People Officer. I love languages and thrive on the complexity of our layers of identity. My kids have two nationalities. They can’t understand why everyone asks whether they feel more British or French – they identify as both.

I was convinced that we all have stories to tell and that race was just one form of a growing list of discrimination subcategories that we can overcome by working together, redefining power and crafting responsible platforms. I was wrong. Brexit has stirred up intolerance and polarity. The fear-mongering about robots and AI has not helped. However, as one of my co-diners said, the “code has changed” among dominant groups, and there is no instant Google Translate function to help less dominant people speak this new language.

I have worked in responsible businesses where we had the freedom to work on what we knew to be the right thing. As we pushed for diversity in the organisation we all knew that our customers were our ultimate judge, so representation and difference were good for business. Leadership progression was judged on emotionally intelligent competencies and there was a strong inclusive culture.

Back to the question in the title, race and abuse of power need to be addressed, not just talked about. If we are to build adaptive, innovative and resilient organisations inclusion is a solution rather than a problem. Maybe the workplace will be able to lead the way with co-created purposeful visions, values-driven leaders and responsible tech which harnesses the needs of every individual and team. Maybe one step to close the gap between company purpose and business models is to address the everyday bullying BAME people experience. This is everyday #MeToo thinking, which encompasses so much more than sexual harassment. After all, this is about businesses being coherent, doing what we say we do! We can measure this and use diversity indexes and pay gaps to determine the market value and investment-worthiness of a business. This is not soft stuff.

We need more courageous conversations and then maybe by the time my children start work, the world of work will be a better place. Let’s face history and have courageous conversations so everyone’s emotion can be heard. By having these conversations and getting the right people around the corporate table we can avoid the frightening prospect of even broader AI-driven, automated “discrimination of you” by algorithms that Yuval Harari described in his recent How to: Academy conversation. I for one would rather live in a world of work where we feel we all belong and where we have choices; a place where leaders like Kevin Frazier thrive and where we create shared value for society.

At the dinner table there was a lot of raw emotion and not enough time! The dinner ended on a note of hope with June Sarpong’s book signing (Diversify, HarperCollins, 2017) and her call to “seek the unfamiliar as a key to a brighter future”, but we all knew we had much to do.

As the dinner made clear, the conversation has started but it needs to be continued and expanded. (See Stephen: The Murder that Changed a Nation documentary on BBC iPlayer, or #IDefineMe an entire issue of National Geographic dedicated to race and identity examples.) What examples of courageous conversations and actions can you share that have led to a better balance of race and power?

Karen Rivoire
Human Revolutionary

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