This article was original published here in FTadvisor.com on October 31, 2022, under the title Organisations cannot simply pay lip service to issues of inequality.
Reflecting on the annual outpouring of corporate diversity pledges this Black History Month, it feels like the dial has shifted... backwards.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, organisations rushed to launch diversity KPIs and anti-racist and allyship groups.
But two years on, it already feels like these are failing. Over-saturation has led to tone deafness, and there is more organisations can be doing to provide practical support to their Black employees.
The cost of being Black in the workplace
There are numerous and far-reaching costs of being Black in the workplace, but these still get little recognition.
For starters, Black employees face the emotional tax of experiencing unchecked micro-aggressions in the workplace, or constantly having to mask their identity to make others - predominantly their White colleagues - feel comfortable and integrate into networks that have historically excluded them.
This is particularly apparent in the financial services sector.
Diverse recruiting has become somewhat of a buzzword in response to a societal emphasis on equality.
According to a report by Reboot – "Race to Equality: UK Financial Services Report" – 71 per cent of Black employees have experienced discrimination at their organisation based on their background, and only 53 per cent feel comfortable discussing issues of racism with their team.
Since the inception of various sponsorship and mentorship programmes we have also seen a ‘gratitude tax’ arise.
Despite being set up to address the systemic roadblocks preventing the equal progression of Black people, there is still the expectation that they should be grateful for, or owe their accomplishments to, their sponsors.
A lack of internal infrastructure
Diverse recruiting has become somewhat of a buzzword in response to a societal emphasis on equality and as a solution to ongoing recruitment issues seen across the financial services sector.
However, this means that measures or KPIs are too often targeted at helping get Black people in the door, as opposed to retaining, nurturing, and seeing them progress.
What can be done?
Greater attention must also be paid to intersectionality.
In the Reboot report, 46 per cent of Black employees surveyed felt that engrained working practices or culture in the financial services sector have made it hard to progress.
There are, however, tangible steps that organisations can take to redress the current failings in their diversity, equity and inclusion offerings.
Firstly, they must allow space for both allyship and affinity circles. This gives non-Black colleagues an opportunity to activate their advocacy moving beyond performative allyship, while also providing a space for Black colleagues to unpack and articulate how they are feeling.
It also gives them the licence to be angry about societal occurrences, even those which aren’t necessarily reflective of our personal experiences as Black people, without being typecast in the ‘aggressive’ Black trope.
Greater attention must also be paid to intersectionality, and financial services organisations should take a more individualised approach to equity.
As employees, we are the sum of all our parts, and so cannot ignore certain aspects of ourselves just because they fall outside a tidy corporate category or box.
Across the sector, greater recognition for the need for sustainable change is required.
It is clear that the knee-jerk reaction, and at times performative internal measures put in place following George Floyd’s murder, have not moved the needle.
Financial services organisations must instead have well-resourced, well-regulated, and well-funded diversity infrastructure.
Leadership in finance is still visualised in ‘White male’ terms. We cannot rest on our laurels and just assume that change is an inevitable part of the next generation becoming leaders.
It is integral that organisations ensure that Black people feel supported and safe enough to stop masking their identity.
Ultimately, the above requires an underpinning of strong internal accountability. Sponsorship is a necessity to ensure the progression of Black employees, however, it must be seen as a partnership to avoid the issue of gratitude tax.
Organisations can no longer simply pay lip service to redressing issues of inequality; they have to put their money where their mouth is.
Instead of allocating budget to internal training programmes aimed at shifting mindsets, financial services organisations must instead have well-resourced, well-regulated, and well-funded diversity infrastructure aimed at tackling the systemic inequalities Black people face.
If not done properly, we risk losing the opportunity to achieve real, actionable change.
We would like to accredit Stacey Kowalczyk, who also contributed to this article.