Beyond Box-Ticking | 4 Meaningful Actions to Improve Black Leadership in the Workplace

September 29, 2022

In light of this year's Black History Month theme ‘Action Not Words’, we’re sharing some actions that organisations can take to advance racial equity in the workplace, plus why it’s imperative to support Black leadership.

October in the UK marks Black History Month, where the theme for 2022 is ‘Action Not Words’. The theme seems fitting for a problem that persists across industries and organisations: a great deal of talk around improving diversity, yet little progress being made for Black professionals. 

Recent reports have highlighted the continued lack of Black representation at leadership level and the discrimination faced by Black professionals in the workplace: 

  • Black people across the UK have the lowest percentage of workers in ‘manager, director or senior official’ roles, at just 5%. Source.
  • In the UK, only 52 out of 1,099 of the most powerful jobs are held by ethnic minority individuals. Source.
  • There are zero Black Chairs, CEOs or CFOs at FTSE 100 Companies. Source.
  • Black employees remain the worst off when it comes to experiencing discrimination in the workplace. They are more than twice as likely to experience racial discrimination compared to Asian employees and mixed ethnic minorities (19% v 9% and 8%). Source.

“A huge gap remains between what organizations are saying and doing to promote inclusion and the outcomes we’re seeing for many Black workers and managers. If leaders want to walk their talk, they must spearhead much more meaningful change.” Harvard Business Review


The moral case for diversity and inclusion 

While much has been said about the business case for team diversity ( i.e increased profits, creativity and better problem-solving)  business leaders such as Harvard Business Review are encouraging a move away from this argument (which evidently hasn’t been working up until now). Having to justify the inclusion of underrepresented groups for increased profits rings hollow. If leaders are doing it purely for the numbers, it means they’re lacking the principles and awareness that’s needed to create genuine progress at work and in our societies. 

“We can’t simply ask, “What’s the most lucrative thing to do?” We must also ask, “What’s the right thing to do?” The imperative should be creating a context in which people of all colors, but especially those who have historically been oppressed, can realize their full potential.” Source.

Ensuring access to equal opportunities for Black people - the least represented at leadership level and the most likely to be discriminated against - is a moral imperative for creating a more fair society where everyone can access the same opportunities, resources and living standards. Improving leadership diversity would also mean that decisions aren’t being made solely by one group of people who are limited by the same perspective. Decisions that are made with a variety of perspectives, people and experiences in mind are more likely to create better solutions and opportunities for our diverse teams, customer-bases and communities. 

So what actions can be taken to build better workplaces for Black employees? Here’s 4 meaningful ways to support and elevate Black professionals in the workplace.

4 actions to support Black employees in the workplace:

  1. Focus on building a truly inclusive workplace. Diversity initiatives don’t work without embedding inclusive workplace practices. Regardless of the number of employees hired from diverse backgrounds, companies struggle to retain those hires without having inclusive leaders and company values. According to new research, almost half of Black employees are planning to leave their jobs in the near future due to the lack of fairness in their company’s management. Businesses need to ensure that they’re focusing on building inclusive environments where minority employees feel supported, heard, and comfortable being themselves, so that they can fully thrive and succeed throughout their careers. 

Action: Show that your D&I efforts are more than just a marketing ploy by committing to creating an inclusive workplace culture. Read our blog on inclusive practices that you can start implementing today. 

  1. Ensure that leaders are fully educated on racial equity. It’s integral to have leaders who understand the barriers that have previously affected Black workers from progressing to leadership positions; from systemic barriers, to social disadvantages, unconscious bias and discrimination. Senior leaders need to be fully committed to promoting racial equity in the workplace in order to create genuine progress. But in order to dismantle the current system, they need to have knowledge of it. With the majority of senior positions being filled by white men, it’s even more crucial that this group is educated on racial equity: research has indicated that the only CEOs and lower-level managers not penalised for championing diversity are white men. Ironically, it’s these voices that are needed to champion diversity as they’re more likely to be listened to. 

Action: Don’t leave it to Black employees to lead education and discussions on race. Involve white senior males in D&I efforts by enrolling them in programmes or assigning them with responsibilities from your D&I strategy. 

  1. Support career development for Black employees. A good D&I strategy doesn’t end after making a ‘diverse hire’. To improve Black representation at leadership level, companies and managers need to actively support the progression of entry and mid-level employees, by providing opportunities for growth and development. It’s why it’s important to have a culturally-aware senior team who recognise the biases and barriers that may be at play. A UK report found that all BAME groups are more likely to be overqualified than White ethnic groups but white employees are more likely to be promoted than all other groups (source). Actively supporting Black employees through sponsorship, mentoring and providing L&D opportunities can radically boost career pathways. Studies from Cornell found that mentoring programmes boosted minorities at management level from 9% to 24% and dramatically increased promotion and retention rates for people from ethnic minority backgrounds from 15% to 35%. Research has also proven that sponsorship can be “critical to Black women’s access to significant training, development, and networking opportunities and advancement.” 

Action: Act as an ally by sponsoring Black employees. Sponsorship could look like sharing a colleague’s abilities and achievements with senior leaders, nominating them for promotions or recommending them for learning opportunities. Your workplace could also introduce a mentoring program for Black students looking to get into your company industry.  

  1. Use data to track and measure progress. Crafting an effective D&I strategy using data turns vague promises to improve diversity into a tangible and actionable plan. You can use data to track the number of recruits from diverse backgrounds and to see how they’re progressing through the company. Tracking with metrics helps to identify which areas are working well and which areas need improving. For instance, it may highlight a lack of progression for Black employees beyond mid-management level or low promotion rates in comparison to other groups, meaning that you can actively focus on improving those areas. 

Action: Collect both qualitative and quantitative data in your strategy plan. While quantitative data will show you the numbers, qualitative data (hearing stories and experiences from your employees) is just as important for identifying persisting harmful behaviours that can’t be captured in numbers. 

Develop your best employees into empowering and inclusive managers and leaders with the Circl programme. Learn more about how it works here.