What it’s like to work in a FTSE 100: the BAME view

31 July 2017 -

BAME managersBAME managers are often forced to go the “extra mile” to progress amongst their company’s “elitist” culture, frequently without the backing of senior executives

Jermaine Haughton

The Delivering Diversity report from CMI and the British Academy of Management identified the perceptions of culture-fit, the presence of senior mentors and sponsors, and workplace unconscious bias as the most important factors dictating the everyday experiences of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) professionals at work.

Some 26 interviews with BAME individuals working in junior, middle and senior management roles across the FTSE 100 revealed that the majority of BAME managers are very concerned with the on-going challenge of trying to fit into their company’s work culture.

With many FTSE 100 companies still having an “acceptable face” or status quo culture, usually tailored towards the interests of predominantly privately-educated middle class white men, BAME managers reported that finding a way to progress, without those qualities or social background, can be intimidating and uncomforting.

A BAME senior manager explained the alienation he experiences at his company: “There’s an immediate assumption when people see me, and that’s the kind of thing that gets to me… I think it points to the fact that your name is different and as soon as you walk in, your heritage will show and people already have an image in their head… ‘he’s Asian, so he won’t be a fierce leader’.”

As a coping mechanism, some BAME employees admitted to inventing their own practices to attempt to fit in and reduce negative perceptions.

A female BAME manager said: “When we go to leadership meetings and events, I will always be the only BAME in the room... So I always make an effort to initiate conversations... and sometimes you feel that people are a bit more careful about what they're saying and you notice that their interaction with others like them is a bit more natural…

“It takes a bit of time but you end up building relationships with them and they become more comfortable next time you meet them.”

One senior BAME manager explained how just his appearance has stirred up pre-conceived notions and prejudices of his character.

He said: “When I walk in or somebody sees my name... they have a bias toward who I am, how I think, or what my values are.”

For some, unconscious bias has led them to miss out on promotions, key client accounts or leadership positions, while for others they feel invisible and ignored for development opportunities.

In discussing why there are so few BAME senior managers in her organisation, one respondent said: “…You look at their [the senior management’s] backgrounds, you can see that people recruit people that are similar to them, have the same background as them... [There is often] a good representation at the application stage but when it comes to the actual recruitment and offering it doesn’t happen because... there is so much bias in terms of people that look like them.”

Investment in unconscious bias training for all staff - especially those in decision-making roles - is an important first step for organisations, according to the Delivering Diversity report. The study says there needs to be continual communication and acknowledgement that bias exists everywhere, so that employers are aware of their inherent biases/prejudices.

Lack of role models

The presence of a BAME person at senior leadership level, who has trodden a very similar path to success as junior and middle managers wish to, can have a serious impact on recruiting and retaining the best talent. Two BAME respondents even suggested that FTSE 100 corporations should use executive search agencies to target and recruit BAME leaders with proven leadership qualities that other employees may feel inspired to emulate.

The CMI and British Academy of Management survey showed some BAME respondents were clear that their choice of organisation was heavily influenced by the presence of BAME role models in the target organisations.

One BAME director prioritised this in the choice of his current organisation: “When I applied for this role and was doing my research, I looked at the board of directors and I noticed that the CFO was BAME… It was important to me to see someone that senior. When I joined, I made the effort to get closer to this guy and he helped me a lot.”

Formal mentorship programmes are viewed by many BAME respondents to be a great way to breaking down these barriers, and gaining promotions. Both the mentor and mentee can benefit from knowledge transfer, sounding-board and networking opportunities, and the confidence of being supported.

One BAME senior manager said her BAME mentor made it easier for her to raise her concerns and experiences.

“[She is] really, really great at relationship management... having the right balance between having a great coaching conversation versus actually doing the directing as well,” she said. “[She was] hugely well respected across the organisation. [She was] great at directing me and letting me know how I was getting on with work.

“If a meeting went really badly or I was feeling down... she would absolutely identify with that [and provide] support.”

Not all companies have these programmes, however, and the report shows how the onus is often on employees to approach senior colleagues to ask whether they would be willing to mentor them.

The prospect of having to seek out and engage a senior member of staff to be a mentor for you can be difficult, especially for those who feel they many not fit the “culture” of their organisation.

Therefore, many BAME respondents told researchers that they are quite reticent to approach someone directly. This is not only a missed opportunity for the individuals, but also for employers to develop a diverse management pipeline, which can bring fresh impetus and ideas to boost earnings.

Additionally, BAME respondents earmarked workplace sponsors, with the power and intent to support BAME candidates, as a major necessity to boost the representation of ethnic minority leaders.

Certainly, the interviews revealed numerous success stories of how sponsorships propelled the career prospects and experiences of BAME employees.

“Sponsorship can be valuable,” commented one female BAME director. “It happened organically for me as I had a boss that I got on very well with. I got to know her well and she obviously saw something in me and gave me the opportunities. I said to my sponsor when she became COO, the job I really want is director of [omitted to maintain anonymity] but it doesn't exist. She said OK, help me out doing something else for the rest of the year and we'll persuade the board in that time... which is exactly what she did.”

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