Research shows one of the major barriers preventing companies from becoming inclusive workplaces is a fear of talking about race. Driving a significant shift in corporate culture is a challenge at the best of time, but becomes practically impossible when people are afraid to discuss the topic. How can we bridge this gap?
To help organisations tackle this fundamental problem, we examined what steps leaders can take to set the tone from the top and create an environment where difficult topics are discussed in an open forum. We interviewed experts in HR and D&I, network leaders, and executives to find out what did and did not work well.
While executives play a key role in starting conversations, the experts also identified another group of importance: race allies. We’ve created a guide for how you can identify race allies and equip them with the knowledge and tools they need to drive change in your business.
Why Race Allies are Critical
Simply put, an ally is an individual who belongs to the majority or advantaged group and who actively supports and advocates for a minority or disadvantaged group. Race allies act as role models for the other members of the majority community, demonstrating the right way to listen and advocate for the minority. In leading by example, they make others feel comfortable discussing race, creating an open environment where frank conversations can be held and progress can be made.
Race allies can and should come from any area within the organisation. They don’t necessarily have to be in leadership roles. When thinking about who might be ready to step into the role of a race ally, start with individuals who attend events about diversity and inclusion, or events hosted by the employee network. You want people who engage in discussions about race and ethnicity, ask mindful questions, and are able to provide psychological safety for difficult conversations.
Focus Areas for a Race Allies Campaign
The objective of a race allies campaign is to empower individuals with the knowledge, understanding, and skills needed to effectively support the minority community. To help guide this process, we’ve identified four areas to focus upon: identities, context, challenge, and champion. Self-awareness is key, as race allies must examine their own role in upholding and dismantling racism. Race allies should think back on their past experiences and preconceptions to understand why racial inequality still exists. Only by doing this can they fully understand why their active support is required to address the problem.
Individuals are more complex than any single label can illustrate, which is why an exploration of identity is important within any conversations around race. When exploring how race and group identities intersect, allies can begin to understand how the minority experience will differ from one person to another, and why there is no quick fix or one-size-fits-all solution.
Organisations often focus on issues of race and unconscious bias when thinking about hiring and appraisals. In reality, racism and racial inequality are inherent and systemic, and impact many facets of everyday business life. As one executive we interviewed said, “One of the issues that we face is the idea that unconscious bias peaks at different times of the year. It becomes a big focus when you are doing assessments of people or half-year or annual promotions, all that sort of stuff, and it becomes unconscious again in the intervening period.” Race allies should be trained to examine each context individually, to understand how racism comes into play and what changes are needed to address them.
Race allies use their voice and their privilege to call for change. Change happens when individuals challenge the business and cultural norms. When we spoke to Executive Sponsors about this topic, they made the point that it takes confidence to raise the issue of ethnicity, and that there is an additional burden of expectation on Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic employees to introduce the topic. This is a clear area where race allies can help.
Minority ethnic professionals are less likely to reach manager or director level compared to their White counterparts and the gap is even greater for Black professionals specifically. Between 2014 and 2019, almost four in every 10 executive teams in the UK had no minority ethnic representation. When you consider those statistics, it is clear that championing must be part of the role of a race ally. Encourage race allies to have conversations with minority ethnic employees to uncover their career goals and aspirations. Wherever possible, allies should provide support either through mentoring, or ideally, by actively propelling minority employees into new opportunities. They can do this be offering career development, introducing them to their network, and by recommending them for relevant projects and openings.
It should not come as a surprise that creating an inclusive culture requires work by everyone. Race allies can remove the burden of driving change from the shoulders of the minority community by using their privilege to create a safe environment for frank conversations. They should take a proactive approach by calling out micro-aggressions and highlighting implicit and explicit bias in the organisation’s culture, people, and systems.
Ultimately, an effective race allies campaign should lead to greater psychological safety and sense of belonging for minority ethnic colleagues; authenticity, purpose and a heightened sense of integrity for allies; and increased equity and representation for the organisation.
(For more information on what organisations can do to address racial inequality in the workplace, request a copy of our report The Middle: Progressing Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic Talent in the Workplace Through Collaborative Action)