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The role of the CEO in stamping out racism

Written by Toby Mildon on Friday, 03 July 2020. Posted in Leadership, People

Workplaces play a really important role in challenging inequalities and racism. Workplaces educate employees on creating a fairer society, which they take back to their families around the dinner table after work.

The role of the CEO in stamping out racism

Workplaces play a really important role in challenging inequalities and racism. Workplaces educate employees on creating a fairer society, which they take back to their families around the dinner table after work. They bring diverse people together under one organisation to collaborate and work towards common goals, visions, missions and create safe cultures where people feel like they belong. Very often our workplaces are much more diverse than our personal circle of friends and family. Small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) play a particular role in this. According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial strategy, SMEs account for 99.9% of the business population. 99.3% of these businesses employ up to 49 employees. 0.6% account for businesses employing up to 250 people. However, there seems to be a disproportionate focus on the remaining 0.1% of businesses employing more than 250 people and what they are doing about diversity and inclusion. It might be because these bigger businesses are required to publish their gender pay gap and that does help spur on diversity and inclusion. However, 99.9% of the other businesses should play a massive part in creating a more inclusive society. If you are the Chief Executive of one of these businesses, how do you do it?

Understand employee experiences

Begin by understanding the day-to-day experiences of your employees. You can do this through surveys or listening groups. Listen out for the more subtle examples of exclusion (like micro-aggressions or incivilities) as well as the more severe forms like blatant racism and harassment. Microaggressions are everyday comments or actions that consciously or subconsciously reveal prejudice towards a marginalised group, often those with protected characteristics. Microaggressions are those subtler snubs or slights that make people feel uncomfortable. A microaggression might be that someone always asks the only woman in the room to go and make the coffee. It might be sexist banter or slightly racist jokes that are not at all funny. Or intrusive questions into someone's sexuality or disability. These behaviours and actions may not have the intention to hurt behind them. These seemingly little things make a big impact on an individual. They also, ultimately, create an organisational culture. It's that which makes individuals feel included and valued or makes them feel unappreciated and excluded. In your listening exercise begin by asking 3 simple questions:

  • How does it feel to work here?
  • What is causing you to think about going elsewhere?
  • What made your friends leave?

As Chief Executive you need to hear first-hand the day-to-day experiences of your employees – and be on the lookout for racism. Only then can you play this back to your organisation – holding up a mirror to your senior leadership team – to begin to take action. This is something that you cannot delegate. You need to hear it with your own ears.

Shape your culture

When organisations create the right culture, employee engagement and retention go up. This leads to growth for the organisation. Organisational culture is the day-to-day lived experience of employees in the workplace, whether they feel they belong. This means it is in the interests of organisations to get the culture right if they want to create an environment that encourages people to stay.

The UK’s ethnicity diversity is shifting. According to the McGregor-Smith Review (2017) ‘In 2016, 14% of the working age population [were] from a BME background. This is increasing, with the proportion expected to rise to 21% by 2051. However, this is not reflected in most workplaces, with many ethnic minorities concentrated in lower paying jobs.’ Do you have a culture that reflects modern day Britain?

Cultures are created when employees imitate behaviours of people at the top of the organisation. Therefore, it’s really important that Chief Executives and senior leaders walk the talk and positively demonstrate inclusive behaviours.  According to Bourke and Dhillon at Deloitte 6 signature traits of inclusive leadership include: cognizance, curiosity, cultural intelligence, collaboration, commitment and courage.

When you are confidently walking the talk as an inclusive leader you need a framework to deliver a culture throughout the rest of the organisation. I like Kotter’s 8 steps process, in particular:

  • #1 - sense of urgency – help your colleagues understand why an inclusive and respectful culture is important. Talk about the risks you’re exposing your business to by not having this culture. For example, opening yourself up to tribunals, not being able to attract or retain great talent.
  • #4 - enlist a volunteer army – create movement by getting colleagues on board (after you’ve created a core steering coalition) to embed change in your business. This army can deliver change initiatives and generate quick wins.
  • #8 - institute change – articulate how a new culture enables your business to succeed. Show the connection between inclusion, respect and success so that new behaviours replace old ones.

Dive in

As Chief Executive you need to lead by example. You need to open up your own world, understand different perspectives, be humble about your own privileges. There are some very practical things that you can do to achieve this.

Get a mentor

Jack Welch at General Electric created the ‘reverse mentoring’ concept. Somebody junior and typically more attuned to technology mentored somebody more senior and typically older and less techie. Find somebody who can educate you on what it’s like to work in a business from an ethnic minority background.

Privilege and sponsorship

In a tweet, Arlan Hamilton, founder of Backstage Capital (where its investments have at least one founder who is a woman, person of colour, or LGBT+) defined privilege for us. She said: If trying to understand sharing your inherent privilege, think: when someone shorter than you needs to see the stage better at a show, you usually let them stand in front of you, right? You both get to enjoy the show, it’s only a slight inconvenience, and you. don’t. shrink. When you are doing your employee listening exercise you might spot up-and-coming talent within your ranks.  Sponsor these individuals by mentoring them, introduce them to colleagues to open up their professional network, give them opportunities to shine. This sponsorship will help them overcome the many obstacles that somebody from a minority group has to overcome in the workplace.

Call it out

So, by now you understand your employee experiences, you are creating an inclusive culture, you and your team of senior leaders are walking the talk and leading by example. You have a mentor who is opening up your world and you are sponsoring up-and-coming talent. However, you become aware of racist banter, jokes or bullying and harassment somewhere in your business. You have to call it out. You have to remind employees that this behaviour is not tolerated. Take action swiftly like taking an employee through a formal grievance process. Re-emphasise the kind of positive culture that you want, why it’s important to the future of your business and that there is no place for racism in SMEs.

About the Author

Toby Mildon

Toby Mildon

Toby Mildon is a diversity and inclusion architect and founder of consultancy Mildon. He is also author of Inclusive Growth: Future proof your business by creating a diverse workplace.

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