HR needs to take the lead in calling out racism at work

People professionals are in a unique position to counter racial discrimination in organisations, but they need to grasp the opportunity, argues Shakil Butt

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The events of last week, when George Floyd, a black man from Minneapolis, died after a white police officer knelt on his neck while restraining him, were very disturbing. As we all know, this was not isolated but a continuation of micro and macro aggressions against people of colour, not just in the USA but sadly across the world.

George Floyd is not the first to suffer for no other reason than the colour of his skin. Sadly he will likely not be the last. How many more have died behind closed doors or away from the cameras? How many more will die? This must be the end point of racism, wherein one is dehumanised to the point where another human being has no hesitation to take liberties with your dignity and even your life.

The evidence is increasingly overwhelming showing the impact of long-term racism. Among the BAME community there is a disproportionately high number of Covid-19 deaths, as well as more frequent instances of stop and search powers being used by the police, a higher illiteracy rate, a higher inmate prison population, more underdeveloped urban inner city areas, and more people in social housing. The list goes on.

The feelings of pain, indignation and even anger are understandable. What, then, does this have to do with the HR profession and the world of work? I would argue everything. In the work context, if you are from a BAME background, you are more likely to be working in an insecure, low paying role – that is, if you are working at all, as you are also more likely to be unemployed.

Many of us transition from adolescence into adulthood in the workplace, bringing our prejudices that have been conditioned into us from an early age into the working environment. If permitted, these prejudices then play out again and again in the workplace, when assumptions and judgements lead to discrimination against people of colour throughout the employee life cycle, whether that’s in the recruitment process, development opportunities, performance management, employee relations cases or dismissals.

As HR professionals, we have not done enough. We have the opportunity and responsibility to do so much more. We have heard George Floyd’s last words as he lay dying – “I can’t breathe”. This is our chance to allow BAME employees to not just breathe, but to rise and be truly included.

I have previously compared racism to Covid-19. Covid has affected 6.5 million people and resulted in more than 385,000 deaths globally to date, but I would argue the numbers impacted by racism are far higher, as are the number of deaths. The symptoms of both Covid-19 and racism are well known, but can be hidden, and usually only a small number of people are affected while the majority are oblivious of the impact. Those with the ‘sickness’ of racism – just like those affected by Covid – can infect more than one other person, spreading this sickness further, silently but dangerously.

Covid-19 affects the respiratory system, making it difficult to breathe with the worst-affected patients requiring a ventilator to stand a chance of surviving. Right now, the HR profession needs to be the equivalent of a ventilator, and we need to step up to help people of colour to breathe more easily. The HR professional, qualified and in membership with the CIPD, numbers in excess of 150,000. The number of HR professionals as a whole in the UK is far greater. That’s a veritable army in the world of work that, if deployed effectively, can act to counter racism in all its forms.

HR professionals are the gatekeepers to their workplaces. We influence who comes into and leaves our organisations. We can look in wider talent pools beyond the usual go-to places. We shape policies around reward and benefits, development and employee engagement. We can design them to be more inclusive. We have access to staff surveys, to HR metrics around staff turnover, employee relations cases, exit interviews and internal appointments. We can see the lay of the land and identify problem areas. We can create safer places at the work. We can give people dignity.

But to do all this we need to be braver to call out racism. We need to form coalitions internally so we are not just talking about race or celebrating a culture day or black history month. We need to go further. We must do better. The racism that led to the death of George Floyd did not come from a vacuum. We all have a part to play in helping build a better world than the one we were born into. We have to help others breathe. To be the ventilators.

Published courtesy of People Management and  Shakil Butt is founder of HR Hero for Hire

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