Racism at work is still disturbingly commonplace – here’s what we can do to tackle it

·8-min read
According to a recent report, almost half of black office workers have experienced racism in the workplace (Getty Images)
According to a recent report, almost half of black office workers have experienced racism in the workplace (Getty Images)

My life has been punctuated by major race-related events: the Brixton riots in 1981, the Stephen Lawrence murder in 1993, the London riots following the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham in 2011, the Windrush scandal in 2018, and – more recently – the George Floyd murder at the hands of a US policeman. Each event was followed by an outpouring of outrage, declarations of solidarity and pledges from all quarters to stamp out racism and end racial inequalities. But has anything really changed?

Certainly, some things have improved. During the 1980s, as a child growing up in Smethwick where Enoch Powell delivered his infamous “rivers of blood” speech, I knew that you had to stay indoors on Saturdays because football hooligans would prowl the streets on match days, hurling racial abuse and regularly beating up anyone who was black or Asian.

During the early 1990s, when I moved to London as a university student and lived on top of an Indian takeaway in Dagenham (a BNP stronghold at the time), I lost count of the number of times the windows were smashed by “skinhead” gangs – despite all the CCTV footage, the police never managed to catch any of the culprits.

There were also multiple occasions when I was spat at and verbally abused – unlike many others, I was lucky enough not to have been physically beaten by groups of people (mostly men) drinking outside the pubs I would have to walk past on the way home from the station after finishing my day at university.

You could never get it right: if you looked in their direction, you would be taunted with “What are you looking at?”; if you tried to avoid eye contact, they would shout “What’s your problem?”; if you walked slowly, they would shout racist abuse and tell you to “go back where you come from”; if you quickened your pace, they would start chasing you – in short, anything to find an excuse to pick a fight with you.

This is no longer the case and I can now go out on Saturdays (and even attend football matches) without such fears. But there are many areas in which change has either been far too slow or – more worryingly – where things have gone backwards, as shown by the recent report that almost half of Black office workers have experienced racism in the workplace.

Another recent report produced by Resolution Foundation think tank highlighted that, since the start of the Covid crisis, the UK jobless rate for young Black people rose by more than a third to 35 per cent (compared with a rate of 24 per cent for young people of Asian descent and a rate of 13 per cent for young white people, both up three percentage points).

After university I was offered a training contract by one of the leading City law firms. I came very close to turning it down due to the firm’s “elitist” reputation and being concerned about how I would “fit in”. Luckily, one of my university lecturers and a postgraduate student (who, like me, was of Bangladeshi origin and had taken me under his wing) talked me round and persuaded me to go for it.

After joining the firm, I was also very fortunate in that most of the senior lawyers and partners who I worked with seemed to care most about delivering the highest levels of client service and I felt that I was being judged mainly on the quality of my work, and was being given the opportunity to be involved in some of the firm’s most high-profile deals.

Despite this, as the years went by, I increasingly became conscious that there was a much higher rate of attrition among colleagues from non-traditional backgrounds and that, when you looked up at the senior ranks, there continued to be very few people from ethnic minority backgrounds in senior positions.

There were also big “wake up” moments, including the disparate outcomes for different groups in the aftermath of the global financial crisis (by which time I was working as an in-house lawyer at a major bank). Comparing notes with friends across the City, it was clear that people from ethnic minority backgrounds were losing their jobs at a vastly greater rate than their white counterparts.

After returning to private practice as a law firm partner, I sought to use my position to highlight the importance of attracting, retaining and promoting diverse talent. Contrary to my expectations when I first joined the profession almost two decades earlier, law firms across the City had made very little progress over those years.

It was clear that the issue was not confined to just recruitment (for too long, senior management were able to get away with simply asserting that not enough graduates from minority backgrounds were applying to join them) but that there was also a big problem with progression, with those from minority backgrounds being much less likely to be promoted.

The picture is stark when it comes to black lawyers – a recent article highlighted that just six out of the 800 partners at the top five “magic circle” law firms were Black.

It’s a similar story at board level – a recent Green Park study revealed that, despite public commitments to increase diversity, the number of Black people at board level has been falling in recent years and – astonishingly – that the number of Black chairs, chief executives or chief financial officers among the FTSE 100 companies has now fallen to zero.

A great deal has already been said and plenty of reports have been produced on issues relating to ethnic diversity. What we now need is a greater sense of urgency in tackling these issues through concrete actions.

There are three main areas of required change, based on what I’ve observed in my capacity both as a City lawyer and now as a teacher helping young people transition into the world of work.

The crucial starting point is transparency and accountability. Collating and publishing data about an institution’s diversity provides a basis for scrutiny, discussion and action planning. The data should not be limited (as is too often the case) to just a breakdown of the ethnicity of the total workforce, but should include more detailed analysis of pay and composition at different levels of seniority.

It should also be used as a “safety mechanism” to identify and address differences in outcomes for different groups before implementing key decisions such as promotions, pay reviews, redundancies, etc. As highlighted by the BBC gender pay gap scandal, even in organisations with seemingly robust HR processes, it is possible for there to be huge disparities in outcomes for different groups – collating and publishing appropriate data is crucial in shining a spotlight on this.

Whilst the word “target’’ is often used in a negative way, turning diverse hiring into a tick-box exercise, it is vital that we set clear targets and provide structured support: These are essential steps towards closing the gaps that are identified. Such measures are increasingly being embraced (with some encouraging signs of success) to improve gender diversity and there are no good reasons for failing to extend this to ethnicity.

In addition to setting clear and measurable targets, it is important to develop and implement a programme of structured support for employees from under-represented groups in order to reduce the numbers who “count themselves out” and leave because they do not see enough people like them further up the hierarchy; and to make up for the fact that as human beings we are instinctively drawn towards others that we have more in common with.

This provides an in-built advantage to over-represented groups who end up receiving greater attention, support (formal and informal) and opportunities compared to those from under-represented groups. In other words, as shown by the very limited progress that has been made in the past decades, things will not change without active intervention and support.

We must start bridging the gap between the world of work and schools. Young people can’t aspire to industries which they don’t know about, or understand. This requires employers to open their doors to more school children – especially those from deprived backgrounds.

This is necessary to inspire and motivate the next generation and break down barriers – young people need to “see” (and not just be told by their teachers) that they will be welcomed into the top jobs and professions and that they will receive help and support, including from people whose backgrounds are different from their own.

A few years ago, with the help of teaching charity Now Teach, I left the City behind and started teaching at a secondary school. Since then I have discovered that one of the many joys of being surrounded by young people is that they are naturally optimistic about the future. They also have an instinctive sense of what is fair and right.

As a teacher, I seek to harness this and encourage my students to be more ambitious and aspirational by focusing on the “opportunities” that lie ahead. However, as with so many things that are precious, this sense of hope and optimism is a very fragile thing and students can very quickly become disillusioned when they start finding out about the disparities in society, especially if they feel that there are “unfair obstacles” in their path which will prevent them from achieving their goals.

When this sense of hope and optimism starts to disappear, they become more vulnerable to bad influences around them and this creates a fertile ground for gangs and criminals to groom and recruit new members.

As a society, we have a collective responsibility to eradicate racism in all its forms and every one of us can – and must – make a contribution towards ensuring that young people from all backgrounds have a more equal chance to succeed in life.

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