Why we need to talk about race

How are we supposed to get more BAME people into the workplace if we can’t even cope with a conversation, asks Sandra Kerr

Talking about race in the workplace can be a thorny issue. I frequently encounter people who say they don’t know what terms to use when talking about race, for fear of causing offence, and the topic frequently comes up whenever I attend round tables or question-and-answer sessions.

To support people with some simple do’s and don’ts to break down barriers between colleagues who might otherwise feel uncomfortable asking questions or bringing up conversations about ethnicity, Business in the Community has published a new pocket guide, Let’s Talk About Race.

The booklet is pocket-sized because it’s not meant to cover every scenario, but rather to act as a jumping-off point. I hope that it will help people to begin talking together about race at work and sharing their stories, so they can learn more about their colleagues’ experience and history, as well as acting as an effective icebreaker enabling leaders, employers and policy-makers to openly discuss race within their organisations.

The guide has been written as a direct response to one of the 26 recommendations in the recent McGregor-Smith review of race in the workplace, but also reflects the findings of Business in the Community’s Race at Work survey published in 2015, which found that one in eight of the working-age population is from a BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) background, yet only one in ten are in the workplace and only one in 16 top management positions are held by an ethnic minority person.

The Race at Work survey was completed by over 24,000 people and revealed that 63 per cent of people reported that their employer was not comfortable talking about race at work, rising to 66 per cent amongst BAME employees – suggesting that this is a serious problem for many employees.

A third of respondents said they didn’t mind what term was used when talking about race, whilst a further third preferred the terms “ethnic minority” or “BAME”.

That is enough to start with; rather than getting bogged down in semantics, it’s more important to start having the conversation in the first place.

But just having individual employees starting conversations about race at work in isolation is not enough. It’s important this approach sits along setting a strategy on race equality and diversity within organisations, including setting targets for BAME representation at all levels.

Earlier this year, the Prime Minister’s Race Disparity Audit of Ethnicity Facts and Figures was launched, aiming to create more visibility on existing statistics across government and the public sector. This publication shows the different outcomes for White and BAME people in a range of areas, including employment, and I welcome that it has opened up the conversation.

This evidence of these reviews means we can investigate the causes and begin to develop solutions to improve those outcomes. We wanted to move beyond simply knowing that people found it difficult; we wanted evidence of the extent of the issue.

Our aim is for people to feel the discomfort and start the conversations anyway, because if we can’t even talk about race at work, then how on earth will we get more BAME people into the workplace and enable them to progress in their careers, including reaching senior levels?

Sandra Kerr OBE is Race Equality Director at Business in the Community

This article first appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of LEAD. To make sure you never miss an issue, subscribe today for as little as £50 for the year.