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Racial Inclusion: The Role of Leaders in the Workplace

You can’t do inclusion in an exclusion paradigm,” says Professor Dr. Minesh Khasu in a Club House room one afternoon. When considering diversity, equity and inclusion (“DE&I”), this statement is key.  We are seeing an ever-increasing awareness and intent to promote DE&I and this has led to an impetus for dialogue and action around creating programs and policies to enhance racial inclusion in the workplace. But, how effective are these if they do not take into account the wider context that workplaces operate in? 

Most employers recognize the benefits of DE&I in enhancing their business and fostering success through its ability to make employees feel more valued and connected and in turn contribute to better performance. 

It is difficult, though, to discuss racial equity in the workplace in isolation from what is happening beyond the walls and mechanisms of businesses. We ought to consider the social and universal realities that transcend workspaces when considering how effective internal policies in the workplace may be.

Carmen Morris, a contributor for Forbes, noted that, “social realities cannot be detached from working lives” and that, consequently, it is crucial that activities embody the social conversations and societal demands for racial equality. 

It, therefore, follows that to develop the best strategies for diversity, equity and inclusion in the context of race and ethnicity and to ensure they are truly transformative, such strategies must delve deeper into the dialogue around racial discrimination. The strategies must consider the realities of systemic racism; how it permeates our society and ultimately perpetuates racism both on a structural and individual level.  

Kate Slater states that “racism describes the marginalization or oppression of individuals because of their race. Systemic racism describes what happens when cultural institutions and systems reflect that individual racism”.  

The world around us informs our views, ideologies and culture. We must tune into our world and its narratives when developing programs and policies that promote genuine and efficacious racial and ethnic DE&I in the workplace. 

It is often the view that whilst we may not be able to change the world, we can change our world, but we cannot ignore cries of social and racial injustices that are borne out of historical events and social constructs that form the foundation of racial inequity today.  

The McGregor-Smith Review in the United Kingdom noted that the employment rate gap between ethnic minorities and white workers is over 12 percentage points. In the United States, racial bias in the workplace is costing businesses billions as a result of increased absenteeism, loss in productivity and in turnover. 

Leaders who want to create workspaces that advance people of all races and are genuinely diverse and inclusive will understand that exclusion for some members of our society starts long before they are rejected from businesses and that they are resigned to living with stereotypes, biased narratives and a system designed to disadvantage. 

It is against this backdrop that we cannot design real diversity and inclusion spaces without holistically considering race and racism. This will only lead to superficial tick box policies 

So what are some of the practical steps we can take?

  • How many leaders and managers know the employment statistics for people from ethnic minority backgrounds in their country and therefore really understand the case for action? For example, BME individuals make up only 10% of the workforce in the UK and hold only 6% of top management positions (McGregor Smith review) 
  • Leaders should understand the challenges that preclude some people from specific racial and ethnic backgrounds from certain spaces and how can they contribute to developing external programs aimed at developing and identifying talent amongst racial and ethnic minority groups. These can be, for example, school or outreach programs. These programs can have the added effect of accessing ‘lived experiences’ that deepen understanding. Chimamade Adiche warns us not to embrace a single-story lest we miss “a kind of paradise” 
  • Leaders should fully engage around the topic of racial inclusion, especially strengthening their knowledge of the communities in which the businesses operate. For example, Carmen Morris speaks of developing cultural competence – acknowledging cultural differences and viewing behavior in a cultural context 
  • Ruby McGregor Smith says in her report “there is no reason why every organization in the UK should not have a workforce that proportionately reflects the diversity of the communities in which they operate, at every level”. This should be a clear goal for leaders and as a starting point organizations should capture and be transparent about their workforce composition.  
  • Organizations should report on the race and ethnicity pay gap as well as gender and consider the intersectional impacts. 
  • In workspaces, unconscious bias and microaggressions create unsafe spaces for minority groups.  These behaviors are often so normalized that their ability to perpetuate exclusion and division is often overlooked. Leaders must make an intentional and concerted effort to create dialogue around these which seeks to raise awareness and invoke empathy. 
  • Leaders should support a ‘speak-up culture’ and support mechanisms for employees to seek counsel, with organizations identifying and tackling ongoing issues through developing informed strategies 
  • Leaders must actively pursue their stated commitment to racial inclusion by setting measurable goals and targets and demonstrating visible steps for building a more racially inclusive workspace. 

The reality is that meaningful support from the very top over a sustained period of time is vital if real change is to be achieved and filter down through an organization and its workers. Discover our brand new EDI collection with lessons on how to create a more inclusive workplace here

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