Getting past D&I as branding

The recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests has got many firms trying to brand themselves as diverse and pro-racial equality – but how does HR enact lasting change beyond this?

Words by Dan Cave | Design by Matt Bonnar

After the most recent node of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, countless organisations ‘blacked out’ their social media feeds or website headers to position themselves as supporters of the BLM movement. However, it wasn’t long before articles appeared scrutinising these firms’ questionable commitment to diversity and inclusion, racial equality and want to change – despite superficial support for the BLM cause. In this instance, Microsoft, Amazon, Adidas and Nike, amongst others, all came under fire.

There will have been a variety of reasons for this swelling of corporate support for better racial equality, even if businesses had struggled in the past in this area. For some organisations, the desire to put out internal and external comms in support of the movement would have been cynical – an exercise to boost brand, whether it be employer or consumer. For others, it would have been genuine, as they looked at their structures, mechanisms and workforce and saw areas for obvious improvement.

Yet, even if it is the latter which prompted support or self-reflection, Raj Tulsiani, CEO & Co-Founder of Green Park, an executive search and interim consultancy, believes employers and HR have to become more purposeful (and less reactive) in order to drive lasting change in the area of organisational equality – as well as analysing their own ability to leverage this moment for better diversity and inclusion.


He explains: “Although the will [for better equality] may have increased post-BLM, the level of skill to act has not. There is a lot of dangerously poor advice being given at the moment, through firms’ knee-jerk tokenistic actions, or listening to advisors with no lived experience who have just jumped on the ‘race bandwagon’ post-BLM." To counteract this, Tulsiani believes a strategic mindset is needed. This will require, as Tulsiani explains, HR to take the lead and push leaders to not go for the easy option i.e. not just become concerned with boosting the brand.

“Leaders have to intelligently reconnect D&I aspirations with systemic plans for tangible business outcomes for them to be trusted through implementation. HRDs need to play their part by helping others look past the attractive window dressing of quick wins towards regular measurements of cultural improvements analysed and segmented to detail progress and areas for interventions,” Tulsiani lays out.

Difficult conversations

Like Tulsiani, Jig Ramji, Group Head of Talent at London Stock Exchange (LSEG), has also recently seen more enthusiasm for genuine improvement in the area of racial equality, which he believes is, at least partly, the result of the recent BLM protests and subsequent media attention. Ramji is encouraged by how much this moment seems to be instigating a genuine organisational desire to change – with firms now ready to embrace ‘difficult conversations’. “If we’re very honest, we might have avoided the empathy piece in the past,” he says, “because if we go deeper with empathy, we have to understand what people may be going through and what they’re going through might be quite confronting and quite challenging.

“Hypothetically speaking, for me to hear a very challenging experience of a black colleague is probably not nice; we’ve [HR] avoided that in the past because it might be difficult to hear but now we want to understand that lived experience better because that will really help to empathise and put ourselves in people's shoes. Maybe that’s the big difference this time round; we’re all challenging ourselves to hear the more difficult conversations instead of going into solution mode and forgetting to hear what exactly the problem is.”


Leadership and strategic thinking

Whilst Ramji cites D&I as being an important factor for all organisations worth their salt over the last few years, he admits that many organisations hadn’t met the goals they had set. As such he believes it is the conversational approach, as stated above, as well as deeper reflection on the daily lived work experience of colleagues (and the impact this has on their wellbeing) – not forgetting, how leaders understand the need for structural change and better relations with their workforce – that are now coalescing together to drive potential change.

“We’d have hoped to have made more progress in D&I,” he says. “What this moment really did for us was about driving that real debate and discussion around why have we not done more, why we have not achieved more; forcing us to have a look at organisational processes and the impression of ourselves. It prompted a real moment of reflection for our senior leadership team.

“We have to not just think about targets and representation but the wellbeing of our colleagues and can they can continually be challenged by not seeing enough progress or being disappointed with progress. It's promoted two things for us. One, it's forced us to ask what we can do differently and forcing us to try new things and to also think about our colleagues who have been affected by this.”

Of course, as Tulsiani states and Ramji implies, this has to be a genuine, strategic approach – something that Lorraine Martins MBE, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Network Rail, ensures when leading D&I at the owner of Britain’s railway infrastructure. “If I think about my own approach and strategy… we’ve got some targets we want to achieve, we want people to approach culture in a positive and inclusive way, we know the direction of travel.

“That’s crucial for any business. You have your plans of what you want to happen and you do them.”


Creating powerful stories

Martins also believes that a successful inclusion strategy is not just lead by HR – and relies on a diversity of voices to create real change. “The more voices you have contributing to that the better. HR will have a way of articulating it and those who deliver projects will have a voice, and those that manage stations will also have a voice, and I think all of that variety is really important because it touches different audiences in different ways,” she says.

Ramji also believes it is the variety of voices and the stories they tell – such as those driving the ongoing momentum of BLM; those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; and those of colleagues – that can drive real change. “We do need to hear stories,” he explains, “and we do need to understand them better. Data [what HR often relies on when talking about D&I] is quite distant and whilst it is objective reality we are all moved by narratives and people experiences. We’re moved by understanding and being in someone’s shoes because it's emotive. It is these stories that it may be able to create true movement.”

And LSEG’s talent honcho is confident that HR is up to the challenge – citing his experience of the function trying the ‘human approach’. “ For the first time HR departments – and there’s an irony to this – are taking the real human angle rather than trying to be overly objective and data driven around these things,” he says.

“They’re taking the stories and the human experience and dovetailing these with the business strategy and with respective communities in a way I’ve not seen. I’m even challenging myself: why haven’t we done this before? Maybe we haven’t done this because it’s too close and too personal – but we're being brave and courageous and now people are being honest about these experiences.”

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