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UK Companies Are Failing Black Professionals

Whatever British firms are doing to attract and retain Black talent, it’s not enough.

Some 46% of Black professionals in the UK say they plan to stay with their employer for only two years or less, versus 34% of White professionals, according to a survey published last week by New York-based nonprofit Coqual. For Black female professionals, the figure was 52%. The findings show that efforts to improve diversity in recruitment are wasted if firms can’t then inspire confidence in career development and provide an inclusive working environment.

The higher propensity to leave was in part explained by a sharp differential in perceptions of fairness in promotions, performance evaluations, hiring and pay, Coqual found. Nearly two-fifths of Black professionals said their company’s processes were “not at all” or only “slightly” fair, versus only about one-fifth of White professionals. Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, was one of the sponsors of the research.

The situation should alarm UK employers. It’s not just that they are losing the benefit that an array of backgrounds brings to collective decision-making. Black professionals reported vastly higher levels of ambition than those from other racial groups in the Coqual survey — and they will take that elsewhere.

Attrition risks being self-perpetuating. If Black professionals leave, they won’t be represented in the executive leadership unless the firm can make lateral hires. In turn, that sends a message to potential new joiners that there’s a glass ceiling if you don’t look like the current team at the top. The most recent study of the UK FTSE-100 index of blue-chip firms by London consultancy Green Park found no Black chairs, chief executives or chief financial officers among its constituents. Note that the CFO role is often a gateway to being CEO as well as to non-executive roles on other boards.

There can be a tendency in the UK to look at the ethnic minority population as a whole instead of focusing on the day-to-day experience of specific groups. Last year’s report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities drew criticism for suggesting that terms such as “institutional racism” were overused. At the moment, much attention is focused on the ruling Conservative Party’s diverse roster of candidates to succeed Boris Johnson as its leader and the country’s prime minister.

But just as pandemic health outcomes varied across ethnic groups, so people’s experiences of the workplace are not universal. Black professionals were significantly more likely to report experiencing racial prejudice at their current or former employers than their Asian and White counterparts were, Coqual found. Common microaggressions experienced by Black professionals include being underestimated (being told, for example, that they’re “articulate”), having their hair touched without permission and being expected to represent their entire race.

Nor are the experiences of Black professionals uniform. Black Caribbean employees were more likely than Black African peers to say that their company’s processes were either not fair or only slightly fair, and less likely to say they have role models at their firm.

The corporate action plan for this is not difficult — it just needs implementing.

Companies must understand their culture before they can improve it. That means using surveys to audit how employees experience the workplace (with questions set by an independent organization), raising awareness and providing anti-racism training (recognizing that employees’ racial literacy will vary).

At the same time, firms should scrutinize the procedures that govern how people move up the company. Middle managers do most of an organization’s hiring, firing and promotion. Ensuring that the processes they control are fair and objective — and are seen to be so — should be part of performance evaluation and incentive pay.

Accountability should also be to the public sphere. There is a strong case for publishing ethnicity pay gaps with explanatory narrative where feasible.

One question is whether senior leaders’ sponsorship of up-and-coming talent is being used effectively. Last year’s update on the 2017 “Race in the Workplace” review by British Chambers of Commerce President Ruby McGregor-Smith found that progress on mentorship for ethnic minorities had slowed despite strong demand — above all from Black African employees. Firms can also do more to facilitate networking opportunities for Black professionals with other companies.

The great resignation is bad enough for the UK corporate sector. But employers should pay special heed to what’s making Black employees consider joining the trend.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Chris Hughes is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals. Previously, he worked for Reuters Breakingviews, the Financial Times and the Independent newspaper.

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