Inclusion at Work

Race at work: silence is not enough

Former Executive turned C-suite Coach, Rene Carayol, tells his empowering story of standing up to prejudice.

Sitting in the reception, I was due to see John McFarlane, the chairman of Aviva at the time, to negotiate the severance package of one of my coaching clients. Some departures can become difficult and are better handled by third parties.

A PA came down to fetch me. When she arrived at the reception desk, they pointed her in my direction. I was seated next to a courier dressed in figure hugging lycra, with a cycling helmet on his lap.

She stopped and double checked the name on the slip of paper. In a flash, this experienced performer had lost all her poise, and a panic spilt over her face. With a less-than-confident staccato voice, she said to the both of us, “Er … Mr Carayol?” We both said nothing.

I let it hang in the air for a bit, and then said, “I think you’ll find that’s me”. She looked as though she had been struck by lightning and apologised profusely.

As we walked to the lift, I tried hard to remove the irritation and frustration from my mind and thought how could I use her gaffe to my advantage. I asked her how I could get the chairman on my side for the negotiation. She said without hesitation, “Make him laugh”.

Once settled in the chairman’s office, I shared an old gag, and he laughed out loud. The negotiation could not have gone better. There’s a lesson there about greeting guests who look different from what we expected. So much more unites us than divides us but we must open our minds to accepting and valuing difference.

Only actions prove who we are

A recent YouGov poll has found that two thirds of Black Britons have experienced a racial slur and three quarters have been asked where they are “really from”. More than 50% believe that their race has hampered their career development, and about 50% have been racially abused at work, which is nearly the same as those abused on the street.

There is definitely far more sensitivity around race now and in the main, the language is less primitive and hostile. Many businesses have recently made meaningful statements and declarations of intent on race.

This is a great start, especially for those of us who have never heard this level of stated commitment to change before. But now comes the real and challenging part – the actual changes, the demonstrable actions.

The obvious and right place to kick this off is recruitment, promotion, and retention, and as a stamp of weight, in the boardrooms of UK Plc, where there are too few Black non-executive directors and zero chairs. The words are where we all want to be, but the actions prove who we actually are.

It’s still impenetrable at the top

There are 99 ethnic minority directors in FTSE 100 companies. Among them, there are 7 CEOs from an Asian or minority background, but no Black CEOs. We still hear far too often, “We totally believe in diversity, but we are not prepared to drop our standards to accommodate women or minorities”. The implicit bias of ‘they’re probably not going to be good enough’ sets the unhealthy and inappropriate tone.

The 2016 Parker review set FTSE 100 boards a target of having at least one non-White director by 2021, whilst FTSE 350 firms are challenged to appoint one ethnic minority director by 2024. Both targets require huge focus.

Silence is no longer golden

The fear of being seen to be ‘prejudiced’ pushes many to want to appear ‘colour blind’ and therefore remain silent. This is hugely annoying and frustrating for their Black colleagues.

Neutrality has become hugely insensitive and insulting. It feels like you don’t care enough to call out what you clearly know is wrong and hurtful. Many managers can feel that they do not have the expertise to deal with something so provocative and sensitive. The truth is no one will get it dead right. The correct words are very difficult, but it’s the intent that will register.

It is imperative that the targeted groups feel supported and stood up for. Remember the words of Dr Martin Luther King, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

A letter to the chair of the board

Would it be fair to say that all or most of your fellow board directors have similar backgrounds to you? And do they look a lot like you? Have you asked yourself why? Are you questioning your assumptions and your attitudes? Can you be convinced to find a better way of identifying the right mix of people for your board of directors?

Do you know that it is statistically impossible that the best candidate for every position on the board will be a middle class, middle aged white male? Are you prepared to work with your chief HR officer, or better still, your diversity and inclusion officer to set targets for the ethnic make-up of the board?

It takes courage to demand the change we seek for a future where we all belong.


First published in Management Today.

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