CIPD Voice: Issue 9


Less talk, more action is the welcome firm stance taken by Baroness McGregor-Smith in her recommendations of how business can address the significant underrepresentation of BME talent at executive level and the apparent inequality in progression opportunities. She launched a call for evidence last May, to which CIPD responded, and in February 2017 the recommendations from that review were published, including a roadmap to inspire immediate action by employers. For too long we’ve recognised the need for change but progress has been too slow.

There’s an undeniable moral case for change, but also the diversity of thoughts, ideas and ways of working afforded by people of different backgrounds and identities can benefit individuals, organisations and the economy. However, to truly realise these benefits we need to have inclusive workplace cultures built on the principles of equality of opportunity, transparency and fairness, where people feel comfortable and are encouraged to voice different perspectives. If we don’t challenge the status quo, we’ll face an under-utilisation of talent through not enabling everyone to achieve their potential. There should be no reason why anyone with talent and ambition should not progress at work, but research suggests this isn’t the current reality.

Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that, overall, people from an ethnic minority background are, ‘more likely to be unemployed than white British people, are over-represented in poorly paid and unstable jobs, and are less able to secure opportunities for job progression or employment which matches their skills and abilities’(2015, summary). This is despite the finding that, ‘in general, ethnic minority groups tend to have high levels of education compared with the white majority’.

BITC’s 2014 Race at the Top report found that although 1 in 8 people of working age in the UK are from a BAME background, they only hold 1 in 16 top management positions. Following on from this work, BITC’s 2015 Race at Work report found it’s not a lack of ambition that’s holding people back. Ambition to progress is higher among BAME employees, with 64% of this group agreeing it’s important to progress compared to 41% of white employees. Breaking those figures down, 72% of employees from a black background agreed, as well as 63% of Asian employees and 61% of employees from a mixed race background.

In a foreword to a 2016 report by the Policy Exchange titled Bittersweet Success? Shamit Saggar, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Essex echoes these concerns, calling out that many people, ‘are not succeeding as much as they ought to be based on their qualifications, skills and experience’ (p.7). This paper looks in detail at the glass ceilings to leadership positions facing people from different ethnic minority backgrounds. Their review of recent research in the area found that many industries still have blockages to the top that need to be addressed, with access to the leadership level jobs remaining elusive.

The Policy Exchange cites research from Green Park which found that in 2014 just 11 of the 300 CEO, CFO and chairman posts in the FTSE 100 were held by non-white people. More recently in March 2016, Doyin Atewologun examined the ethnic diversity of FTSE 100 directors for the Parker Review. She found that just 8% of the 1,087 board positions are held by directors of colour (compared to 14% of the UK population). In real numbers, the FTSE100 has 90 directors of colour (with four people holding two board positions). Seven companies account for over 40% of the directors of colour and 53 companies don’t have any directors of colour. Furthermore, the Policy Exchange’s report refers to, ‘snowy white peaks at the top of the FTSE100, the NHS, the civil service, local government and academia’ where change isn’t happening fast enough.

It’s clear from the research that the assertive approach taken by Baroness McGregor-Smith in her review is needed to drive real change on racial equality. In her report she sets out the reasons, both economic and social, why the time for warm words is over and why real action is required.

We welcome the Review’s recommendation for listed companies and all organisations with more than 50 employees to regularly publish workforce data broken down by race and pay band, as well as set aspirational diversity targets. At the moment employers may not collect this data and therefore may not know how diverse (or not) their workforce is. We also need to acknowledge the breadth of the term ‘BAME’. Each ethnic minority group will have its own history and traditions – some with greater representation in certain occupations and industries than others, and research shows there are a complexity of issues at play. In short, to make a real difference we need to understand the detail of the data and avoid a homogeneous approach which can mask the real problems and could lead to uninformed action. For example, the Policy Exchange report points out that, ‘improvements in minority representation could be made by improving the lot of those already doing well rather than increasing the representation of those who need it most’ (p.18).

The transparency achieved through data reporting can improve visibility of the issues, help focus attention and ideally drive action. However, this cannot be a ‘tick box’ exercise. The insight gained from taking stock of and reflecting on the workforce make-up needs to be used by employers to address racial inequalities at work. Reporting needs to be against a set of defined measures and explained through a clear narrative to help all of an organisation’s stakeholders to assess its performance on diversity. The McGregor-Smith review provides population figures which can help businesses establish appropriate targets for their locality and inform the narrative around their data.

Encouragingly, we’ve already seen action by Government with Business Minister Margot James’ letter to FTSE 350 companies, urging them to improve diversity and inclusion in their workplaces. She called on them to take up the recommendations from the McGregor-Smith review into black and ethnic minority progression in the workplace. FTSE 350 companies are asked to help drive the much-needed change through publishing a breakdown of their workforce by race and pay, setting aspirational targets and nominating a board member to deliver on those targets.

The critical role of HR

It’s very clear that the HR profession has a central role in making change happen. We need to lead from the front as we are ideally placed to challenge and address the status quo, ensuring organisation cultures, leadership and people management practice are built on the fundamental principles of trust, equality, fairness and inclusion. We’re making progress on gender, but as a nation we tend to find that easier to discuss – we need to make the same headway with race, but that means overcoming our reluctance to talk about it.

Few people would disagree that enabling talented people to reach the top of their game is the right thing to do, irrespective of their identity or background. To make a sustainable change we need to first uncover where the blockages are in our particular contexts in order to build strong talent pipelines to the top, where progression is based on merit and ability. If we look at how further progress is being made on improving gender balance in FTSE leadership, Sir Philip Hampton and Dame Helen Alexander advocate extending the focus of attention beyond the boardroom.

We already have some insight into the blockers to progression for different ethnic minority groups, including a lack of networks, sponsors and role models from BAME backgrounds at the top of organisations, as well as what McGregor-Smith refers to in her foreword as, ‘a structural, historic bias that favours certain individuals’. However there is still much we don’t know.

To further our understanding here, and most importantly to help inform and drive employer practice, we’ve started new CIPD survey research into the barriers to career progression faced by employees from BAME backgrounds. We’re building on what we already know from existing research to enhance our understanding of the enablers and blockers to progression from an employee perspective.

And there’s an opportunity for you to get involved… We know that employers listen to other employers, so we’ll be supplementing the survey findings with practical case study examples of practice. These practical examples could help to kick-start practice and share ideas. If you’re already taking action and you’d be happy to share what you’re doing, do get in touch: research@cipd.co.uk

What’s particularly profound for me is the potential for change at an organisation level to impact change at a wider societal level. To reach true equality of opportunity we need to look hard at our workplace cultures and do so with urgency. We can’t continue at the current rate of progress, especially given, ‘One in eight of the working age population and one in four primary school children is of a BAME background’ (BITC, 2015, p.30) – they can’t face the same barriers when they reach the workplace. If we keep waiting till tomorrow we’ll never deviate from the status quo. We need change to happen today.


Jill Miller

Dr Jill Miller, Research Adviser

Jill Miller joined the CIPD in 2008. Her role is a combination of rigorous research and active engagement with policy makers, academics and practitioners to inform projects and shape thinking. She frequently presents on key people management issues, leads discussions and workshops, and is invited to write for trade press as well as offer comment to national journalists, on radio and TV. She specialises in diversity and inclusion, employee well-being, people management in SMEs and future HR trends.

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