Including everyone at work – we need leadership and allyship

Post author image. Guest editors
Business in the Community (BITC) Race Director, Sandra Kerr CBE, and Gender Director, Charlotte Woodworth, explain how we need great examples of leadership and allyship to tackle the inequalities exposed by COVID-19.
Left: Charlotte Woodsworth
Right: Sandra Kerr CBE

In a period marked by social unrest and a pandemic that has laid bare society’s stark inequities, employers must redouble their efforts to build a fairer and more inclusive workforce.

During the pandemic black, Asian and ethnic minority workers faced a drop in employment rate that was 26 times higher than for white workers. We know also that women have suffered disproportionately during this period – they are more likely to have lost jobs, been furloughed, and picked up the additional caring responsibilities emerging from lockdown. There has never been a more critical time to address the lack of diverse representation at the top and to amplify the voices of those facing unfair barriers at work.

BITC believes in a world where a person’s ethnicity and gender does not determine their potential for recruitment, development and progression in the workplace and where everyone can achieve their full potential regardless of background.

When we look at senior representation by ethnicity and gender across government, both central and local, the judiciary, policing, education, and business – the disparities provide evidence that more action is needed to ensure everyone is included, particularly for black talent. A shocking 1% of UK judges and less than 1% of academics are black, despite making up 3% of the UK population. Women are under-represented the further you go up in business; while there has been welcome progress on the number of women at board level, research published in 2020 found there are more men called Peter leading FTSE 100 companies than there are women1.

Last year, our Black Voices report revealed that 33% of black employees say their ethnicity is a barrier to their career progression in comparison to 1% of white employees. This huge rift in people’s lived experiences calls for a greater focus on fostering shared understanding through active listening, education and allyship.

Representation and allyship at the top

How authentic is inclusion in government and business when there are so many top tables in the UK where decisions are being taken that impact black employees and other demographic groups – but their voices are absent?

A recent example of inclusive leadership and allyship was President Joe Biden’s speech when he ‘called out’ the elephant in the room: the stark difference in the level of force used to respond to protestors who invaded Capitol Hill compared to those who protested the murder of George Floyd by police in summer 2020. Biden demonstrated honesty, courage and authentic leadership when he said: ‘we all know this to be the case and it’s not right, it’s not right.’ He demonstrated his commitment to leadership and allyship again in his inauguration speech.
Leaders must take responsibility to create safe spaces within workplaces where employees can ‘call out’ and challenge inappropriate behaviours. Walking the talk themselves is one way they can set the tone. We must be prepared to have curious and open dialogue when issues arise. Employees feel valued when they know that their voice has been listened to by leaders and the follow up actions from those leaders provide evidence that they have been heard.
The independent government-commissioned Race in the workplace: The McGregor-Smith Review found that tackling racial disparities would provide a potential annual boost of £24bn to the UK economy. Ensuring inclusion of all employees from black, Asian, and ethnic minority backgrounds in the UK will contribute to the economic recovery that is sorely needed at this time. These gains will be increased if we take action to include everyone covered by the protected characteristics in the equality act alongside social background.

Getting started

We understand that every business is at a different point on their journey to creating inclusive cultures within the workplace. BITC has events, content, and advisory support to enable our members to get there.
A good place to start for leaders is encouraging and continuing conversations and dialogue.

  • Be brave and speak up! You do not have to be an expert on the issue and have all the answers. Be open to conversations where you listen, learn, and understand better the perspectives of those that may be much different from your own.
  • Actively listen to every one’s contribution and accurately attribute credit and recognition for new, innovative, practical ideas and solutions
  • Demonstrate through policy changes and other practical actions that employee voices have been heard.
  • Find opportunities to align conversations to your organisation’s values –this is a great potential unifier.
  • Be open to challenge and encourage employees to ‘call out’ inappropriate behaviours, bias and negative micro-behaviours that do not help employees to feel that their perspective and experience is respected and that their voice and contribution has value.

The BITC Race at Work 2018 Survey found that the top three topics employees said their organisations were not comfortable talking about were race, religion, and social background. It’s important to be aware that talking about race is challenging for most leaders and employees: our survey found that over two-thirds (62%) of people at work do not feel comfortable talking about race.

However, we need to encourage conversations to create workplaces where everyone truly believes and experiences the privilege of being their authentic selves, that they belong to the organisation and their teams and have a voice and their contributions are valued.

Build back responsibly

Last summer saw a seismic shift in the way businesses think and talk about race. Diversity, equality and inclusion is fast becoming a cornerstone of strategic decision-making. We witnessed this when Race at Work Charter signatories doubled in the space of a few months and our 2020 Race at Work Charter Survey report, which was completed by 114 employers representing 1.4 million employees across the UK, spotlighted leadership, transparency and accountability as key areas for businesses across all sectors. Employers listened to the voices of their talent, pledged to embed equality into their decision-making and delivered robust allyship training.

The events of the past year have also highlighted the precarious footing women hold in the labour market; remove the support systems in place that enable many to juggle home and work life and it is women – especially lower paid women, younger women and black Asian and minority ethnic women – who find themselves pushed and pulled out of the workplace.

BITC calls on businesses to radically change the expectations and impact of responsible business to build a future where a person’s skin, gender, or indeed other characteristics do not impact their prospects at work. Learn more in our report Time to Fix-Up: Our Big Chance for Business to Build Back Responsibly, which outlines how businesses must harness the innovation brought about by the COVID-19 crisis to tackle the challenges facing society.

Talk to one of our expert team today to learn how membership of BITC can help you take your responsible business journey further and drive lasting change.

Drive your responsible business forward


1 Amanda Blanc’s appointment as CEO at AVIVA on 6th July 2020.