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Racial Inequality in the Workplace – My 6 Key Learnings

Matt Phelan | 17th August 2020

This is the second time in recent weeks that I’ve taken part in a conversation about race in the workplace. Thank you to Kevin O’Brien for inviting me on to the panel, and to Yinka Opaneye, Edleen John and Cat Wildman for sharing their thoughts and experience in what was an emotional and powerful conversation. 

What’s an Essex, White-Boy Doing Talking About Race? 

Let’s be clear, I have white privilege (anyone wanting to understand what white privilege should watch this brilliant video by John Amaechi). Up until the last couple of months, I didn’t know or appreciate the significance of this. My friend, Shereen Daniels, challenged me to get more involved in the conversation because of my position at The Happiness Index, and our ability to collect data on how employees are feeling. I’m embarrassed to admit that one of the reasons I didn’t previously join conversations like this, was because I didn’t feel like I should. Once Shereen explained to me how prevalent the corporate wall of silence was on race and why it was important to everyone, from all backgrounds, to get involved in this conversation I felt duty-bound to join this conversation and commit to continue learning as much as I can.

At The Happiness Index we consistently see in our data that to be happy, employees need to feel that they have a voice, and feel like that they can be themselves at work. Today’s conversation reinforced to me that many members of the Black community don’t feel like they have a voice or feel that they can be themselves at work. This was a shocking realisation for me. I still have so much more to learn – but for now – here are my key learnings from today.

1. The extent of emotional trauma 

Whilst the violent murder of George Floyd has ignited the indignation of much of the White community, as Edleen and Yinka shared for the Black community this was just the latest incident in a long history of emotional trauma they’ve lived with.

Yinka expressed the disappointment many of his friends felt in how their organisations had responded to this latest event, or even acknowledged it as an issue.

“It’s that feeling that we have been dealing with this for so long on our own. And privately trying not to exhibit any kind of strain, or trying to show how much we might be breaking inside, or how angry and frustrated we are. And that in itself depletes you emotionally.”

2 It’s Created an Enlightening Moment We Must Seize Upon

Edleen pointed out that whilst the issues around racial inequality surfacing recently were nothing new, “it had created an enlightening moment for the world, where everybody is taking a breath, and saying, the rest of us didn’t realise this was happening.”

This enlightening has created opportunities to start open and more honest dialogue. In my opinion, perhaps more than there’s ever been before. HR and business leaders must seize this opportunity and think about how they can move racial equality forward in their organisations. 

To achieve change no party is going to be able to do this on their own. It is going to need the White community, and people in positions of privilege and power to want to engage in this discussion, to educate themselves on how to have this uncomfortable conversation, and to change their actions and behaviour. But let’s be realistic. There’s no quick fix here – don’t fool yourself into thinking the solution is to have a 30-minute workshop and it’s job done.

Edleen cautioned that: “Black people and those from under-represented groups, will have to share some of their experiences to help the education process. And that is a burden that is tiring. That is exhausting, and in many situations, it’s not enjoyable. But actually, that is what is going to help us move further along this journey, to really create that equality in the workplace.”

3 Create a safe space to listen to your people

HR and business leaders have a responsibility to recognise when there is such a transitional change going on and understand how it’s impacting their people. Neuroscience shows that when people live under prolonged stress and are experiencing trauma, they retreat into the reptilian part of their brain, which means they’re going to be in fight and flight mode, and can’t access the creative frontal cortex of the brain. 

Acknowledge as leaders that there’s a huge piece of work around creating psychological safety within your organisation. Many people are struggling with the burden of the race conversation. Therefore, you, as an organisation or a business leader, must create an environment that feels safe, for that discussion to happen. 

Unless you show people that you’re listening and you care, they won’t engage. At The Happiness Index our neuroscience-based methodology is first to show your people you care, and once you have established that trust to really listen and create a safe space where they can share their emotions and feelings. Until you’ve done this you can’t move onto the understanding and action phase.

4 Culture Trumps Policy

Cat explained that whilst your D&I policy may have some value as a framework and a guidance point which everyone can refer to and understand, without any accountability it doesn’t change the experience of your people or reflect your culture. A policy alone doesn’t ensure that there is inclusivity, that everybody feels heard, everybody feels valued, safe and respected.

Yinka eloquently summarised this: “Diversity and inclusion for me is a company’s culture, pure and simple. A policy should be a codification of the existing culture that’s already there, what’s already in place and you’re just writing it down for posterity and so you can keep it going. And what I have seen in the past is the diversity and inclusion policy has been written as a fiction, It’s not part of the culture, it is not in the DNA of the core of the company”. 

Ultimately if your leadership team and people embody this culture, and there’s clear accountability at the highest level, you would never need to refer to a D&I policy because you would be able to see it. You need a vision for what D&I feels like in your organisation, what people can see, what they’re going to hear, and how you’re going to feel. That’s the journey we are going on at The Happiness Index. 

5 Beware what you Measure

I fervently believe that the problem for a lot of D&I initiatives is that they “just count”. They count how many people from different demographic backgrounds but forget to measure emotions and people’s experience in the organisation. As I’ve said many times, organisations are really bad at accepting that emotions belong in the workplace. 

6 Diversity & Inclusion Encompasses a Multiplicity of Experiences

Although today we focused on race, not all Black, White, Asian or people of any ethnic group are a monolith. Yinka shared his frustration with some of the terminology used in the D&I space like “people of colour”, which lump all individuals together. Everyone is an individual with their own experience. 

When considering D&I we must incorporate this multiplicity of experiences. So, it’s not just a case of creating environments where more diverse ethnic groups are working, but to do more and create an environment where people of all backgrounds feel comfortable working for you. Whether it’s people of different genders, sexuality, religion, race, age or any other underrepresented groups.

I really enjoy being able to have open and safe conversations like this with Yinka, Cat, Kevin and Edleen. I encourage you to do the same in your communities, friendship groups and places of work.

I still have so much to learn and do on this topic both personally and in my own organisation but I’m committed to continuing the journey. 

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