How HR Can Support the Progression of Ethnic Minority Talent

Reports such as The Parker Review have called for at least one “leader of colour” on FTSE 100 boards by 2021, while The McGregor-Smith Review further highlights the importance of inter-organisation stakeholder collaboration between teams. Yet, only 4.7% of the most powerful roles in the UK are currently filled by non-white individuals, according to the Colour of Power 2020 report, illustrating how much more remains to be done across the U.K business landscape. The moral argument for equality is undeniable, and yet Black and Ethnic Minority individuals still face barriers to growth in the workplace. Despite visible minorities accounting for 13% of the population, there is a disproportionately low number who are reaching the top.

Achieving sustainable and measurable change requires commitment and active participation from those with the power and privilege to recognise, challenge and change the behaviours and practices that prevent equity and inclusion. Human Resources (HR) must play an important role in the advancement of the ethnic minority agenda. However, research suggests that while some HR leaders are doing their part, others are accountable for impeding its progress.

We sought to understand why this is happening in the second edition of our report, ‘The Middle: Progressing BAME Talent Through Collaborative Action’ (The Middle). We interviewed HR Directors, D&I Practitioners, Executive Sponsors and Employee Network Leaders to find out what was driving dissatisfaction with the HR function. To understand how HR can support minority ethnic talent progression, we must first take a closer look at the challenges they are facing, as well as why HR Directors - in particular - seem to be held to account.

Reticence to implement action

The Network Leaders we interviewed felt HR directors were barriers to change as opposed to strategic allies in advancing ethnic minority representation. They highlighted their perception of HR as reticent to tackle issues regarding ethnicity in the workplace. This reticence hindered HR’s ability to effectively communicate or represent the interests of visible minority talent with senior leaders. The result: weak communication leading to a failure to implement the type of action that ignites change.

Gaps in ethnic diversity data

Although data cannot identify all the solutions to an issue, it is critical in providing a foundation for discussion. Data can be used to size the extent of a problem and tracked to hold businesses accountable. In the case of diversity and inclusion, absence of accurate data makes it impossible to support and measure the actions taken to address lack of representation within an organisation.

We were disappointed to find only two-thirds of companies we surveyed had processes in place to capture information about the ethnic backgrounds of individuals in their companies. Additionally, just 20% of respondents publicly disclose the information regarding the number of ethnic minority individuals in their business and 59% say they either do not use, or rarely use, the data to inform their initiatives regarding employees.

These statistics suggest more than hurdles to information gathering. They imply that many senior leaders who are responsible for ensuring equal opportunity for employees in the workplace do not see data collection on race and ethnicity as a priority. Most alarmingly, when asked about how often their company board and executive committee receive management information about the progression of minority ethnic talent in their organisations, only 4.3% of HR Directors answered ‘always’ and a striking 42% did not provide an answer. This begs the question: how can businesses drive change and create opportunities if they do not fully understand the extent of their current problem?

Being the bearers of bad news

We uncovered another factor which is preventing some HR Directors from speaking out. In our study, HR Directors admit that they are often concerned that diversity and inclusion data will not reflect the business in a positive light. This drives them to restrict access to this data because of fears and uncertainties about what might result from their publication. In effect, they do not want to be the bearer of bad news, particularly given their reticence to have the conversation in the first instance.

HR Directors are responsible for driving formal and fair processes for promotion, retention and advancement. Yet these formal processes can be undermined and distorted by the power of personal connections and company culture. The Middle report suggests they are unwilling, or unaware, of this sad reality. It is yet another difficult conversation to be had.

Discomfort with the difficult conversation

Against the backdrop of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, organisations are recognising that clear, meaningful commitments to diversity and inclusion must become a top priority. However, those same events have left leaders fearful of saying the wrong thing when it comes to discussing race in the workplace. This fear can stifle and hinder progress. For example, fear around honestly addressing race holds allies back from actively engaging in relationship-building with their colleagues. It may also discourage HR from challenging unfair informal practices relating to work allocation, bias and questionable outcomes in recruitment and promotion discussions.

Competition within the diversity agendas

Data from The Middle suggest that gender and LGBTQ initiatives, such as increasing female representation at senior levels, are undertaken at the expense of a focus on the representation of ethnic minorities. HR Directors themselves are amongst those that suggest gender and LGBTQ programmes have frequently edged out race issues.

The explanation provided is that organisations can find gender and sexual orientation agendas ‘easier’ to manage. The ethnicity agenda is perceived to be more complex. That these agendas are regarded as competitors for limited time and resources is a major issue with which businesses must reckon. As HR teams make progress with other diversity agendas, they may choose to focus on the positive results rather than shine a light on areas that still need improvement.

Change only comes with commitment from the top

It is important to remember that HR departments do not operate within a vacuum. Oftentimes, it is not left to their sole discretion to set the organisation’s people agenda. According to our data, HR Directors are able to see the importance and richness of diversity, but convincing leaders across a business to actively invest in ethnic minority career advancement is difficult and requires energy.

It is no wonder then that the HR Directors with whom we spoke expressed concern about senior leaders within their organisation who resist change and therefore hinder progress.

These HR Directors stressed that accountability for the success of the race agenda lies with the leaders sitting at the top of the organisation. Change cannot happen without absolute commitment from the leadership.

Unfortunately, the most senior and visible minority employees are left under intense pressure to be advocates for the race agenda. This results in already marginalised employees bearing the burden rather than the leaders who failed to commit organisational resources to the issue.

Collaboration is key for the progression of minority ethnic talent

While the HR department must play a significant role in delivering the ethnic diversity agenda, it is clear that they cannot do so alone. This was echoed by the respondents in The Middle who struggled to identify any one individual who is accountable for the delivery of the ethnic diversity agenda or describe the specific role HR needs to play. Ultimately, working against, blaming or undermining each other cannot facilitate the collaborative approach needed to deliver a programme of change.

So, what can HR Directors do to shift the organisational narrative from cultural diversity and under-representation as a ‘problem to solve’ to a ‘resource that is under-utilised’? The starting point is to normalise discussions about race by establishing a shared vocabulary. They must overcome their reticence to deliver bad news and their fears of potentially getting it wrong, instead helping to build an environment where frank and fruitful conversations can be held.

The progression of visible minority talent is the responsibility of the wider organisation, and cannot be borne solely by ethnic minority employees, nor any one stakeholder group, even one as critical as HR. Until big business reaches a consensus on what action is needed to deal with the structural issues that create barriers to the progression and promotion of minority businesspeople, organisations must hold up a mirror to themselves. This is the starting point for removing the systemic and cultural barriers that still obscure the everyday experiences of, and impede the progression of, ethnic minority talent.


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