25 years of working towards racial equality in the workplace

Post author image. Sandra Kerr

Sandra Kerr CBE, OBE, shares an overview of the progress of the Business in the Community race equality campaign over the past 25 years.

We currently have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see lasting systemic change in racial justice. We have reached a tipping point with increased awareness of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign and inequality in society. But the issues being openly discussed now have deep roots and racism will not disappear without consistent, intentional action. Here at Business in the Community (BITC), we have been working since 1995 to eliminate racism in the workplace and we have learned a lot from the hundreds of businesses we work with on how barriers to recruitment, progression and retention can be overcome.

Early highlights of the race campaign include the introduction in 2001 of an annual benchmarking process to show how businesses were performing on race and the launch of the Race Equality Awards in 2007. This helped to shine a spotlight on some of the key priorities and challenge areas including: making the business case for change; recruiting a diverse workforce; developing and progressing that talent; and marketing to diverse communities and engaging diverse suppliers.

2009 saw the launch of the first research report Race to the Top which highlighted that there was little to no representation at the top table of businesses or politics in the UK. 
In 2009 we also piloted our first Cross Organisational Mentoring Circle programme for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women who were invisible from the gender agenda within most organisations at the time. Since 2013, this has been an annual programme for BAME men and women, and it saw a dramatic increase from 220 participants in 2019 to 350 in January 2020.

As our ability to document and measure progress grew, so did our ability to offer a wider commentary on the state racial equality in UK workplaces.

From 2010-2011, we released a number of research reports including Aspiration and Frustration – fair access to the professions, Race into Education – examining the representation of UK domiciled students in British Universities, Race to Progress – the first report we published that highlighted the high levels of ambition among BAME people in the UK workplace.

2012 saw the creation of our Youth Advisory Panel which joined the Race Leadership Team and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) policy makers to examine some of the issues linked to the systemic issues contributing to higher levels of unemployment among young people from BAME backgrounds.

In 2014 we published Race at the Top and our recent update shows that in 2019, representation continues to be a significant problem for senior teams across sectors.

In 2014 we had a landmark Seeing is Believing visit with 16 business leaders visiting Brixton Jobcentre and hearing from young people in their own words, the challenges they faced in their job searches and interviews. Following that visit at the end of 2013, an Unemployed Mentoring Circle pilot with 10 employers was designed and delivered in collaboration with key employers and the DWP. The results of this was that 70 of the 90 young people who participated moved into full-time work within four months of the initiative. In 2018, this was extended in 20 locations in collaboration with the DWP. 

2015 saw the launch of the ground-breaking Race at Work 2015 survey in collaboration the YouGov – the largest survey on race of its kind with 24,457 responses. Some of the key issues highlighted were the need for leadership at the top table to tackle racial harassment and bullying, and the need to support the progression of BAME talent.

The Race at Work 2018 Scorecard Report one year on from the McGregor-Smith Review: Race in the workplace, provided the insight to identify the five principle calls for action in the Race at Work Charter: leadership; capturing and publishing ethnicity data, zero tolerance on racial harassment and bullying; managers promoting inclusion and supporting the progression of BAME employees.

What do we need to see in the future?

More employers signing up to the Race at Work charter and committing to take action. It is something that every employer in the UK could do today as a sign of their commitment to tackling racism in their workplaces.

We know that what gets measured, matters and we want to see every employer capturing their ethnicity data and publicly reporting on their ethnicity pay gaps. As we have seen with the introduction of gender pay gap reporting, this brings this issue to senior leadership teams and makes the ethnicity pay gap a boardroom issue.

Learning from people with lived experiences is a vital part of any kind of inclusive leadership. We want to see reverse mentoring along with mentoring and sponsorship of BAME employees being embedded within every workplace in the UK to create truly inclusive workplace cultures.

Learn more at the Business in the Community race campaign