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How HR professionals can disrupt systemic racism at work

Dr. Doyin Atewologun, Flo Alayo, Dr. Majari Prashar and Michael Puchalla

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Although the prevalence of racial bias and inequality in the workplace is now widely recognised, it remains a pressing issue.



The roots of workplace racial bias and inequality are seeded within the much larger problem of systemic racism. This term refers to the default biases engrained within all facets of society and occurs when prejudice against an ethnic group is embedded into practices or systems that are widely accepted as ‘normal’ or ‘legitimate’.


This results in those of us ‘racialised as White’ within socially established systems (e.g., criminal justice, employment, housing, education, health care, politics) benefitting disproportionally in terms of life outcomes and access to resources, compared to People of Colour.


As consultants at Delta with expertise in inclusive culture change, we advocate an Inclusion Ecosystem© approach to address workplace racial bias and improve equity and inclusion, for wider organisational benefit. Although many organisations have made public statements, signed charters and undertaken surveys to demonstrate their efforts to foster diversity and inclusion, many of their staff, including HR professionals, still seek practical guidance to identify the actions they can take in their day-to-day operations to meet their organisation’s aspirations of improving equity and representation.


Our evidence-informed approach considers different positions, people, and practices for sustainable change that can disrupt systemic racism in your organisation. Our impact and track record with clients is based on the philosophy that everyone has a specific role to play to make sustainable and meaningful change.


In this article, we focus on how HR professionals can create an anti-racist culture by becoming active agents of inclusive culture change. We break this down into three key steps: developing race fluency, understanding race and ethnic disparity, and taking practical actions with confidence.


Develop Race Fluency


Race fluency refers to the confidence and proficiency in articulating differences in career experiences and career outcomes of people of different ethnicities in your organisations. Thus, the first step in developing race fluency is to understand the various forms of racism and the key concepts that can help your confidence in having conversations about racial and ethnic inequalities. Our glossary of terms is a good starting point. For example, explicit racism occurs where individuals consciously exhibit racist attitudes and beliefs through speech and behaviour (consider: in your organisation, across functions or departments, or for those earlier or later tenure are there some groups more likely to experience or demonstrate racist attitudes and beliefs?). In contrast, implicit or subtle racism might include unconscious bias or stereotypes associated with specific racial or ethnic backgrounds (consider: what are some of the ‘positive’ vs negative biases or stereotypes you have heard about different groups in your organisation?). In addition, consider increasing your understanding of what equality laws say about racial bias and discrimination at work.


Understand the extent of race and ethnic disparity in your context


To advance further sustainable and meaningful change, we encourage you to understand the extent of disparities in your organisational context. We suggest gathering and assessing quantitative and qualitative data on race and ethnic representation at various levels of hierarchy. For example, collecting qualitative data through focus group surveys and interviews can help you to develop an understanding of any differences in the degree to which various demographic groups feel a sense of belonging. You may find the recent article we wrote on The value of lived experience research in tackling systemic racism helpful here. If direct data are not available, you can still make an assessment from indirect data such as reported cases of race discrimination, discussions with Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic staff networks, and a visual scan of the demographic groups that seem to be overrepresented in senior leadership teams.


Furthermore, familiarise yourself with data from the wider societal context within which your organisation is situated. For example, what are some indicators of systemic racism in the UK? There are several sources of reliable information, such as the Business in the Community report which revealed that 10.3% of senior leadership roles in the private sector are held by Minority Ethnic employees. Given that Minority Ethnic groups constitute 14% of England and Wales’s population, this figure suggests a disproportionate representation of People of Colour in senior leadership roles. Moreover, this trend has not changed significantly since 2014. Knowing the data relevant to your context will help you identify and articulate the impact of racial bias in your workplace.


Take practical actions with confidence


A fundamental role of HR practitioners is to provide the necessary policies, processes and practices to create an optimal environment to attract, retain and progress talent effectively. If there is any indication of racial or ethnic bias stemming from systemic racism, your role is to identify the source and take actions to dismantle, disrupt and devise new ways to support racial and ethnic minority talent.


To help you determine the actions you can take, we suggest using the lens of the employee lifecycle.




of senior leadership roles in the private sector are held by Minority Ethnic employees.

The information below outlines a number of practical actions to consider at different stages of the employee lifecycle.


Selection and Recruitment  


  • Audit your hiring figures and analyse who applies for positions in your organisation. Are the statistics representative of the UK and the local demographic population figures? Do the applications that you receive represent those who are then interviewed? Are the interviewed Minority Ethnic candidates offered a job proportionately to their White counterparts who applied in the first instance?  
  • When drafting job vacancies, communicate that your organisation strongly believes in having a diverse and inclusive work practice and culture to attract candidates for whom that matters.  
  • Actively collaborate and network with recruitment consultants with diverse candidate portfolios.  
  • Remove identity and demographic markers (e.g., gender, name, post code, name of university) from CVs in early sifts.  
  • Diversify your interview panel as much as possible.  



Pay and Reward  


  • Although ethnicity pay gap reporting is not currently mandatory in the UK, get ahead of your competitors and audit your organisation on pay and reward. Some organisations have proactively started this, highlighting disparities in pay amongst White and Minority Ethnic workers 
  • Set (and communicate) an organisational target for aligning pay to ensure that people in the same role, performing at a similar level, receive equal pay, regardless of demographic difference.  
  • Ensure careful monitoring of pay and rewards. Review these yearly.  



Promotions & stretch opportunities 


  • Review your CPD data to see if there are any ethnic/other disparities in the uptake of coaching, mentoring and other development or training opportunities amongst your employees. 
  • Proactively work with senior leaders and line managers to ensure that White employees are not systematically advantaged by having greater access or exposure to access to formal (e.g., work allocation) and informal (e.g., shadow) ‘stretch’ opportunities in their role. 



Grievance & Disciplinary (GD) 


  • Track and review all GD outcomes to identify any patterns relating to ethnicity and discuss results with each manager.  
  • Where feasible, use an independent manager/employee (outside the firm/office) to take notes on GD. Allow time for deliberation and reflection to minimise the risk of rushing to biased decisions.  
  • Offer relevant training for line managers. This can include topics such as the difference between positive discrimination and positive action, and pertinent practical examples from case law to ensure that managers are aware and informed of their responsibilities.  
  • Remember that employees may not feel confident in speaking to HR if they have a grievance or if they are under the threat of disciplinary action or dismissal. This may be due to fear of repercussions. Consider how to communicate that HR offers a safe space for all employees, including under-represented groups, to air their concerns and consider what support is available for them. Signal support for managers too. 


Targeted Training Programmes  


  • Offer annual training on race fluency, allyship and conscious decision-making for the entire organisation that is designed to raise awareness and stimulate action from all stakeholders.  
  • Ensure that training is not built on an assumption that the problem is a skills deficit of Minority Ethnic employees; this unduly places responsibility for change on Minority Ethnic colleagues, rather than the system.  
  • Training should be targeted to stakeholder groups – senior leaders, line managers, HR and ED&I professionals, and Minority Ethnic talent – to equip each group with the skills and knowledge needed to contribute to sustainable change. This might include training in allyship for senior leaders, inclusive practice for line managers, HR and ED&I, and empowering Minority Ethnic talent.  
  • Consider how to create a culture that supports the actions that emerge from the training. For example, how do you implement a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy? How do you communicate cultural change and inclusive values to employees?  
  • HR professionals too should be upskilled in this area. At Delta, we work specifically in collaboration with HR professionals on a range of topics such as race confidence, change agency and disruption, confidence with data, and building engagement for change in order to equip HR with the capacity for sustained change towards systemic equalities. 



Engagement & Culture 


  • Consider inviting an independent compliance body to audit HR practices every 6-12 months to measure the success of mitigating the effects of bias within your organisation.  
  • Regularly take an audit or employee survey to ‘temperature check’ your employees and gather data on lived experiences across all ethnic groups. Invite external facilitators with a track record of working with diversity dynamics to create safe spaces for employees who identify as White and those from Minority Ethnic backgrounds to share their views and experiences and to suggest practical ideas to maximise engagement and retention.  
  • Analyse your data using a intersectional lens to ensure that you are not missing the nuances of different sub-groups (e.g., Black women are likely to have different experiences to Asian men).  
  • Consider formal and informal ways in which you can build affinity across identity groups, across hierarchies and across functions in the business. For example, can you mix groups on an organisation-wide project such as introducing a new campaign, or planning for the New Year celebrations in a virtual world? 

In summary, HR can play an active role in building an anti-racist culture because of the profession’s critical role in designing, implementing and embedding policies, practices and a culture that ensures all employees receive equal opportunity. 

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