Five ways to create an anti-racist workplace

Written by Jermaine Haughton Tuesday 22 September 2020
Rarely has the focus on racism in society and the workplace been greater. This week, supported by CMI, MHFA England is releasing new guidance on ‘Supporting the wellbeing and mental health of People of Colour and Black people in the workplace’.
Hands of different ethnicities in a square

The global outcry following the brutal death of George Floyd has led leaders to re-examine the racial systems that are still rooted in workplaces and organisations. The MHFA England's recommendations empower managers to develop anti-racist workplaces that allow Black people and those from diverse ethnic groups to perform at their best.

Removing race as a barrier to career success

The new MHFA England guidance (part of its My Whole Self campaign) is founded on three pillars: UK leaders are challenged to: show unequivocal support for Black employees; educate themselves on the complexities of racism; and prioritise anti-racist policies and behaviours.

MHFA England's chief executive Simon Blake CMgr CCMI says that anti-racism principles and practices should be ingrained into every aspect of employment. “Acknowledging that racism impacts People of Colour and Black people emotionally, mentally and physically – and then taking action – is fundamental to making lasting change. It’s important to understand that many People of Colour and Black people have been, and still are, subjected to racial microaggressions and negative comments in the workplace,” says Simon.

The Business in the Community (BITC) the Race at Work: Black Voices report found 33% of Black employees perceived their ethnicity as a barrier to their next career move, compared to just one per cent of White peers.

This week we are hosted a special CMI Race webinar for members where we discussed the new guidance and explored ways to support the wellbeing and mental health of Black colleagues and people from diverse ethnic groups in the workplace.

As we launch CMI’s programme of activity around these important issues, we gathered insights and practical ideas from experts in this field. Here are five ways you can make your workplace a more supportive environment for Black people and people of diverse races.

1. Let employees be themselves

Known as ‘code-switching’, many professionals who are Black or from diverse races are pressured to hide parts of their identity or adopt a different personality to fit in with their colleagues.

Unsurprisingly, this damages individual and team productivity, performance, and growth. Research by Boston Consulting Group, among others, has shown a strong correlation between the diversity of management teams and overall innovation and financial performance.

The MHFA England guidance promotes workplace behaviours and policies that allow everyone – regardless of identity – to ‘bring our whole selves to work.’

According to Dr Jummy Okoya FCMI, a wellbeing psychologist and senior lecturer at the University of East London, this is vital for safeguarding the physical and mental wellbeing of Black employees.

“Supporting Black people and individuals of diverse races to bring their whole self to work will increase their wellbeing, which leads to increased creativity, better engagement, increased retention, and better team relations, concentration and focus,” she says. “All of these are antecedents of a successful workplace.”

2. Be an empathetic leader

Managers are advised to engage with staff in an open and non-judgmental approach by the report.

“If you have People of Colour and Black people in your teams, check in on them and ask them how they’re doing,” says Blake. “We know that racism is pervasive in society and that events such as the murder of George Floyd, as well as individual experiences of racism, can negatively impact people and their work performance. As managers we must be acutely aware of this and ensure that conversations are both open and ongoing and that People of Colour and Black colleagues in our teams know we will support them.”

3. Create spaces for employees who are black and from diverse ethnic groups

Easy access to help on race issues should be available to people from ethnic groups less represented in the UK and Black people whenever they need it, the guidance suggests. This ranges from supportive line managers and inclusion networks to specialist external bodies, such as Black Minds Matter.

Dr Okoya believes unconditional positive care for staff is fundamental for harnessing safe workplaces for Black and diverse ethnic workers to thrive: “When managers take time to build relationships with their staff, this breaks down barriers and allows employees to be their authentic selves. They can experience more positive emotions and can be happier at work – which will increase job satisfaction, engagement and increased wellbeing.”

“Start from a place of trust and have an open and honest conversation with them,” she says. “This can easily be achieved by creating a psychologically safe environment. The fear of failure stifles creativity and makes people be less of themselves at work.”

4. Educate yourself on racism, including white privilege

An in-depth study of institutional, structural, interpersonal and internalised racism in society, as well as White people’s privileges in the workforce, can help White managers teach their peers, amplify their Black colleagues’ voices and confront racial injustices – even when it’s uncomfortable.

Professor Nic Beech CMgr CCMI, vice chancellor of Middlesex University, offers three initial steps all managers can immediately adopt: “Firstly, accept that there is systemic and society-wide racism.

“Secondly, we don’t all suffer racism, but we all have experiences of changeable mental health over time. As leaders, we should be explicit about this and stand up for mental health being part of what we consider every day, in the way we design work, in the way we talk to each other and in the way we care about the pressures each other are under. Racism can seriously add to these pressures and so we need to be clear about that.

“Thirdly, as the guidance says, we need to listen and act. That means staying with dialogue that is uncomfortable, persistent listening and not going into a dialogue with the intention of getting your point across – go into it in order to be challenged and changed. Reverse mentoring is one great way of doing this.”

5. Prioritise anti-racism at work

From an organisational level, it is essential for employers to follow through with concrete actions for change. This includes:

  • Reviewing all policies and protocols through an anti-racist lens
  • Taking action to address a lack of representation in your organisation where necessary
  • Making sure key decision-making teams include people from diverse backgrounds, and that their work is credited.
  • Providing high-quality learning and development opportunities on race, racism, being anti-racist and an ally.

You can find the full MHFA England guidance and watch the recording of the CMI Race webinar.  

You can read CMI’s Delivering Diversity research in full, and you can learn more about the CMI Race network here.

About the language used in this article: When it comes to the terminology we use around race and ethnicity, CMI is listening and wants to learn from our community as part of an ongoing conversation. If you would like to join the discussion please do join our upcoming CMI Race events or get in touch.

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