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Establishing A Resilient Anti-racist Workplace Culture

Since the killing of George Floyd and the global focus on the Black Lives Matter movement, organisations and individuals have committed to be more aware and actively anti-racist.  With that heightened awareness has come the realisation of the challenge ahead.  Organisations and individuals may now, more than ever, be thinking that things need to change.   But the practical challenge can feel overwhelming.   Without a clear plan, the best intentions can lose energy and initiative fatigue sets in. 

On Wednesday 27 January Howlett Brown met with Dr Wieke Scholten of &samhoud consultancy to discuss what practical steps organisations should now take to embed meaningful change and build a resilient anti-racist workplace culture.   A recording of that discussion can be found here and a summary of some key points is set out below:

What does it mean to be anti-racist?

So often people and organisations react with horror at the idea of being described as racist.  Yet the reality within those organisations is that day to day behaviours and practices have the unintended consequence of being racist, impacting diverse staff and negatively affecting workplace culture.   

No matter our good intentions, we see this dynamic across sectors and organisations.   Racism is not just the worst forms that we would all rail against – being overt attacks and discrimination.  It is also the biases we all have, consciously and unconsciously, which frequently direct how we interact with people around us including the everyday comments and behaviours that comprise day to day microaggressions.  All of these behaviours build up, collectively resulting in systemic and institutional issues. 

To build an anti-racist culture, organisations need to be able to identify, understand and deconstruct these systemic and institutional issues which allow the experience and outcomes for individuals to be directed and limited by their race rather than their capabilities and potential.  To do that, organisations and individuals need to take a more structured and nuanced approach to racism and be able to recognise that the impact of behaviours does not require malign intent or deliberate ignorance.  Good people can be and are racist.

Understanding racism – thinking in three

Figure 1: Behavioural model &samhoud consultancy

Every organisation has behavioural drivers, patterns and outcomes, as represented in the image above.  So often we assess outcomes and, if a problematic outcome is identified such as indicators of racism, senior leaders direct staff that those outcomes must change.  But because there is frequently no conscious intent to be racist, we cannot direct people to simply stop being racist.  Everyone listening to a statement that we must support anti-racism is likely to agree and look around the room at others wondering who is at fault, failing to appreciate their complicity in the problem. 

We need to dig deeper and understand the behavioural patterns, processes and drivers which may result in racist outcomes, to support individuals to think differently, and to prevent the (re)occurrence of racism in the workplace. 

1) Behavioural Patterns

Behaviour is what you see and hear in the workplace. The patterns in behaviours illustrate the ways we act at work. We suggest considering underlying behavioural patterns in the following categories:

· Leadership e.g., direct managers showing little empathy or urge to learn, hindering feedback from staff.

· Decision making e.g., insufficient incorporation of different perspectives, resulting in a blindness to other views.

· Communication e.g., through the use of defensive language, hindering openness of communication.

· Error management e.g., when mistakes are met with blame, causing staff to feel reticence to talk about errors and uncomfortable situations. 

2) Drivers of behaviours

Figure 2: Behavioural drivers &samhoud consultancy

To address racism in the workplace effectively, it is important to understand WHY we act the way we do at work. As illustrated above, a helpful categorisation of behavioural drivers in the workplace is: 

· Contextual drivers e.g., impactful events in the outside world such as Black Lives Matter demonstrations or the killing of George Floyd.

· Organisational drivers e.g., corporate values and codes, training and composition of teams.

· Social drivers e.g., shared beliefs, in- and outgroup effects, dynamics between teams and psychological safety.

· Individual drivers e.g., cognitive biases and previous work as well as personal experiences.

Only when we are able to make changes to the drivers of behaviours, are we able to change our behaviours in the long term.

3) Outcomes

The outcomes are the results and information we can see and assess – quantitatively and qualitatively. They are the statistics on recruitment, retention and promotion and the pay gap and stay gap data that organisations increasingly collect and seek to understand.  There may also be information on staff, third-party complaints or whistleblowing data.  But quantitative analysis alone is inadequate, which is why organisations frequently run staff feedback surveys and carry out exit interviews.  Unfortunately, however, this information can miss the nuanced experience of staff. 

What doesn’t work?

Reliance on a positive narrative may be reassuring but often fails to change the culture of an organisation.  These can include ideas that ‘it’s just a couple of bad apples, not a systemic issue’, or a hope that ‘tone from the top will filter down’. With regards racism, a common misconception is that intent is the key driver in determining outcome, with excuses being made for staff who are well thought of and, perhaps, just a little ‘old school’ in their views. 

Training alone.  There needs to be a robust analysis of what is happening and why.  Training is important but can be avoided or ignored by individuals or, as is frequently the case, engaged with enthusiastically and then relied on as reassurance that the issue has disappeared without further analysis.

Having a zero-tolerance approach to racism.  Whilst many forms of overt discrimination and racial abuse is illegal and it is possible to have a zero-tolerance approach to racism in that form, the majority of day-to-day racist acts or systems which perpetuate outcomes based on the race of individuals are subtle and require analysis to understand the subjective perspectives of those involved.   Expressing a broad zero-tolerance approach to racism can, perversely therefore, inhibit individuals and organisations from being able to admit racism in any form. 

Assuming there is a level playing field and people will rise on merit alone.  Those who have risen through the ranks are likely to see the hard work they put in to get there and reflect on the adversity they overcame along the way.  But that doesn’t mean they are able to see the adversity faced by others or properly understand the extent to which they have benefitted from entrenched systems and institutional preferences that worked in their favour.    

What’s the answer?  

1.      ANALYSIS

· Review what quantitative data is held about people and work towards filling the gaps wherever possible to allow a substantive analysis of diversity of recruitment, retention, promotion and attrition over time.

· Overlay the quantitative with qualitative information to better understand trends or issues and identify the operational reality of a business, and how it may diverge from the top-level intention and values.  In addition to the usual annual employee surveys and exit interviews, it is important to assess indicators such as trends and topics contained in internal or customer complaints or whistleblowing allegations.  Additional insights can be gained through working with employee resource group network leads.  Finally, management should consider targeted focus group work in confidential settings with anonymised reporting. 

· Map business priorities against the ‘hot spots’ where the data indicates there may be problems.  Shifting a culture takes time and trying to grapple with everything at once will overload the system. 

· Map your drivers, behaviours and outcomes in hot spots to identify which drivers to target for improvement. 


· Develop a clear rationale for anti-racism – embed it as a value of the business rather than a current initiative or temporary priority.

· Increase awareness through training and communication.

· Evolve team climates, encouraging openness and building psychological safety.

· Support and engage direct management, improving day-to-day leadership.

· Emphasise the role everyone must play in fixing the problems.


· Economic or social pressure to maintain the status quo.

· Discomfort with the issues and the risks of getting it wrong.

· Disproportionate burdens being placed on minority staff to effect and drive change.

· Competing priorities and limited resources.


·  Long term collaborative strategy across senior leadership, D&I, HR, employee relations, communications teams and, where necessary, external support.

·  Plan for the future – see where the organisation really is on its anti-racism journey and set goals and a route to get there.