On April 1 2021, the government published its controversial report on Race and Ethnic Disparities in the UK. Since then, many of you have asked us for our response to the report, as well as for support in applying the report’s findings to your plans for creating racially inclusive cultures in the workplace. Below, you’ll find our response in full, a guide to what this means for you and a handy summary of all our tips at the end.
Overall, we welcome the national conversation on race and ethnic disparities in the UK that has been reignited by this report. We are proud to work with clients who are bold and curious about what it would be like to work in anti-racist and socially equitable organisations.
According to the report, the government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities advocates an evidence-based approach to removing racial and other inequities from the workplace. In general, we support this approach. However, the report also suggests there is limited evidence of bias at work (restricting this evidence to the job application process, based on findings from extensive field experiments; page 121). Our work in organisations, academic studies and the work of many others on this topic all reveal a prevalence of bias in the workplace.
The report also recommends the complete cessation of all unconscious bias training (UBT) (page 128). We would caution against such sweeping action. In addition, we refute the report’s claim that ‘diversity training and policies that treat people differently don’t work’.
In our 2018 review of the effectiveness of unconscious bias training (conducted on behalf of the Equality and Human Rights Commission), we recommended an evidence-based approach to behaviour change, rather than the automatic roll out of UBT. This is because, although they may raise awareness of unconscious bias, UBT interventions alone are often not enough to tackle deep-rooted bias and deliver long-lasting behavioural change. They may simply be too brief, poorly designed or poorly delivered. As a result, UBT is often disregarded (as in the Race Report) as a ‘tick box’ solution.
However, as we shared recently in this BBC article on “the complicated battle over unconscious bias training”, the unilateral dismissal of UBT is unhelpful if it leads to the removal of evidence-based content and the replacement of UBT with new forms of diversity training that are similarly flawed.
Our recommendation for clients is to build on their investment in UBT by applying additional evidence-based tactics to diversity training, as we suggest in this article on “what unconscious bias training gets wrong and how to fix it”. This, we believe, is more likely to result in sustained behavioural and cultural change.
The impact data we have collected from our clients also suggests that, rather than being ‘divisive’ (as may be inferred from the report), diversity training and policies that treat people differently actually help to create coalition between employees. This in turn helps to promote inclusive culture change. We would encourage all organisations to measure and share the impact of their diversity training to ensure sustained impact and celebrate success.
The report recommends that we disaggregate the term ‘BAME’, typically used as shorthand for Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic people (page 32) and that ‘ethnic minority’ should be used as an alternative – a term that a number of our clients have also adopted. However, other clients use ‘people of colour’ in everyday interactions. There are many positions taken as to the ‘right’ terminology (see our article, and others’ including BITC and the UK Civil Service).
It’s important to acknowledge that identifiers and labels change. As we push back against the term ‘BAME’ in favour of terms such as ‘minority ethnic’ or ‘people of colour’, we come across one of the main challenges with language around race: terms such as these, which lump together diverse groups of people on the superficial basis of being ‘non-white’, essentially centre on whiteness and the white experience (as we have publicly stated). These differences in language preferences are a perfect example of the complexity of race and ethnicity. Language is a social construct with no biological foundation and often other identities (such as culture, religion and nationality) are subsumed within perceptions of ‘race’, as we indicate in our 2020 research for the Financial Reporting Council and the Parker Review.
For our clients, we would stress the need to keep abreast of what is most meaningful in your context and determine what terminology works best in your organisation.
The report takes a clear position on academically established social concepts. For example, it denies the existence of “white privilege” (page 36) and suggests it is replaced with “affinity bias” (page 36). This statement is at odds with decades of international academic research indicating these are separate concepts that explain human interaction. On one hand, white privilege is systemic, environmental and specific to one’s skin colour, while affinity bias is cognitive, internal and general to humanity.
The report also presents that the term ‘institutional racism’ is too ‘liberally used’… ‘without evidence to support such claims’ (page 35), downplaying its prevalence and existence in UK organisations. Institutional racism is defined (taken from the MacPherson report) as:
“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority people.”
In contrast to the report’s findings, our experience since the summer of 2020 has shown that institutional racism is very real and present within the scores of organisations across the UK and internationally with whom we have worked. In these organisations, we have seen raised awareness and an unearthing of processes, attitudes and behaviours which emanate from unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping. All of these things put minority talent at a disadvantage.
Our own research and the work of others has shown that minority ethnic professionals can and do experience particular disadvantage in workplace progression as a result of organisational barriers and implicit systemic bias. In other words, institutional racism reflects the fact that racist hierarchies (which can have significant and long-lasting effects) are embedded as normal in society.
Inequality cannot be examined through the lens of a single identity. Intersectionality theory and practice, from the Oxford Encyclopaedia (written by Dr Doyin Atewologun), states that intersectionality “provides the mindset and language to examine interconnections and interdependencies between social categories and systems.” In other words, to draw the most accurate conclusions, we must consider how the many different systems of discrimination and social categorisations overlap and play into one another.
The guide we’ve created here for you focuses on the “Employment, Fairness at Work and Enterprise” section in the government’s report (pages 105 to 136) as this relates most closely to our work and expertise. In particular, we’ve looked at the implications of the report’s findings on…
Training and development
Language and terminology
Understanding key concepts of institutional racism and privilege.
What you can do
To maximise the impact of your current unconscious bias training, we recommend:
A. Applying the results of your data to your specific workplace challenges to encouraging further understanding and awareness of inequities. Think about:
B. Communicating widely that awareness-raising is a pre-condition of behavioural and culture change but only the first step towards it.
C. Follow up ‘awareness-raising’ by building will and skill for change. The key steps of your training provision should be:
To help pinpoint what is most meaningful in your organisation and determine what terminology works best for you, we recommend:
A. Avoiding the use of a single, standard set of words to capture race and ethnicity across geographies that will be acceptable to all.
B. Read our article on Race Fluency to familiarise yourself with some of the challenges inherent in racial language used within the UK.
C. Engage with your employee networks and work directly with your minority ethnic employees to seek guidance on the preferred identifiers for your organisation.
A. Reading our glossary of terms to familiarise yourself with what some of these popular concepts mean.
B. Gathering evidence from your organisation, using employee engagement surveys, employee exit interviews, promotion rates, differences in performance ratings and pay gaps.
C. Gracefully correct misperceptions of ‘privilege’ being ‘wealth’. Be familiar with Peggy McIntosh’s questions which demonstrate ‘privilege’ more as a ‘freedom to…’ rather than ‘money available for…’
As experts in applied social psychology and intersectionality, we recommend that our clients adopt a ‘critical’ perspective when interpreting data from the myriad reviews and reports available on diversity. This means appraising the rigour of the research and data and exploring alternative explanations for the conclusions drawn from this process. Try…
A . Evaluating the evidence
B. Draw on wider reading
– For high quality reports, look for the extent to which findings draw explicitly on academic peer-reviewed publications. In particular, look for systematic reviews of the research on a particular topic which shed light on the quality, robustness and (in)consistency of research findings as well as unanswered or inconclusive research questions.
– While there remain barriers to freely accessible academic papers, we would recommend critical and curious leaders seek findings from sources such as peer-reviewed academic journal articles, rather than opinion articles.
– Avoid making policy or practice recommendations based on the publication of single-author blogs such as the one the report recommends on page 125.
For more information about how you can engage your entire Inclusion Ecosystem© to maximise employee and organisational outcomes for all, please get in touch.
 See for example:
Cheung, H. K., King, E., Lindsey, A., Membere, A., Markell, H. M., & Kilcullen, M. (2016). Understanding and reducing workplace discrimination. Research in personnel and human resources management.
Jones, K. P., Arena, D. F., Nittrouer, C. L., Alonso, N. M., & Lindsey, A. P. (2017). Subtle discrimination in the workplace: A vicious cycle. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 10(1), 51-76.
Sy, T., Shore, L., Strauss, J., Shore, T.H., Tram, S., Whiteley, P., & Ikeda-Muromachi, K. (2010). Leadership perceptions as a function of race-occupation fit: the case of Asian Americans. The Journal of applied psychology, 95 5, 902-19 .
Wilson, G., & Maume, D. (2014). Men’s mobility into management from blue collar and white collar jobs: Race differences across the early work-career. Social science research, 46, 117-129.
Elvira, M. M., & Zatzick, C. D. (2002). Who’s displaced first? The role of race in layoff decisions. Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society, 41(2), 329-361.
Rosette, A. S., Leonardelli, G. J., & Phillips, K. W. (2008). The White standard: racial bias in leader categorization. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(4), 758.
Reeves, A. N. (2014). Written in black & white: Exploring confirmation bias in racialized perceptions of writing skills. Yellow Paper Series. Chicago, IL: Nextions LLC.
 See Halley, J., Eshleman, A., & Vijaya, R. M. (2011). Seeing white: An introduction to white privilege and race. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; and Kandola, B. (2009). The value of difference: Eliminating bias in organisations. BookBaby.
 Atewologun, D. (2018). Minority ethnic careers in professional services firms. In Research Handbook of Diversity and Careers. Edward Elgar Publishing.