Black employees are being asked to fix institutional racism

Adama Jalloh

The death of George Floyd, a Black American man killed by police during an arrest in May 2020, sparked a global anti-racist movement. As companies scrambled to show their support, they found themselves in an awkward position. They realised they could no longer avoid addressing racial inequality and institutional problems within their own organisations, so they quickly issued a plethora of statements and pledges outlining grand plans to finally solve the issue.
But businesses don’t have structures in place to ensure accountability. Rather than senior leadership doing the legwork, the responsibility has fallen to non-white hires, who are not remunerated for additional labour, or diversity and inclusion officers, some newly contracted in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.


“A lot of organisations are ill prepared to deal with these sorts of things and aren’t actually particularly interested in actioning change,” argues Bayo Adelaja, a D&I consultant and founder of Do it Now Now, an organisation that seeks to empower members of the Black community. “They say ‘We’re educating ourselves’, but don’t know how to actually fix the problems at hand, so look to those who have actually experienced those things. The problem with that is that the Black people within an organisation don’t usually have the power to fix anything.”
Pointing to diverse hires to solve the problem that made them a minority in the first place seems to management like an easy fix to a much larger problem, and this isn’t lost on those who have been burdened with the challenge.
Fiona* is part of a diversity network within a major financial services firm which has received renewed attention in light of recent events, after previous attempts by the network to implement anti-racist practices within the firm had been overlooked. While this appears to be a positive step, she points to an “incredible onus” to tackle structural issues within the company. “We’ve been implementing HR policies and training to diversify the talent pipeline and improve company culture. To balance that alongside our daily jobs that we are actually and contractually paid to do is tough, considering that D&I is now a hot trend,” she says. “Many of us are working extra hours to help create these strategies because we’re passionate about it; however, with the backdrop of Covid-19, it’s mentally exhausting.”
For many within D&I networks or in consulting positions, the newfound attention towards anti-racist practices is long overdue. Senior management has repeatedly ignored framework that was previously presented to them, showing the scale of the problem. Gift Ajimokun, the former chair of Colour[full] at Penguin Random House and an independent D&I consultant, points to her experience at the publishing house and frustration around getting anti-racist policy implemented. “I put together a report on Black and Brown employees’ experiences which I shared with the CEO, complete with action points and areas of improvement,” she says. “I had good feedback but didn’t actually see anything come of it. If they’re smart, rather than consulting employees again and relying on emotional labour, they’ll refer to that report as everyone has already said what needs to be said. It’s waiting there in their inbox.”


While some companies have taken the step to address structural inequality via workshops and unconscious bias training, it’s often the case that sustained effort is needed to really result in any concrete change, as Meera* a brand strategist found after recently running a workshop. “Our leadership team committed to a number of actions including funding the training; however, it became clear that no one was taking responsibility for actioning anything so I took it on as extra work,” she says. “Our MD told me to look into different training providers and I came back with quotes that were deemed to be too expensive. When we eventually did have D&I training – which was done by a friend in exchange for some free work on our part – much of the leadership team didn’t attend, instead going to a boozy lunch.”
As Covid-19 caused companies of all sectors to struggle financially, the extra cost of external D&I consultants or new hires can be viewed by managers as a burden on the balance sheet. “Consultants aren’t generally cheap, so organisations need to find the budget where they didn’t already plan for it,” Adelaja says. “D&I officers tend to be shunted to the side because they’re not bringing any money in themselves. Ultimately, they’re considered to be a cost.”
If reshaping an unequal structure is truly something that company leaders believe in, it’s an investment worth making. “If you see spending money on anti-racism as a cost, you automatically see it as something that is taken away from what you already have,” argues Ajimokun. “It’s seen as a risk more than anything. If you view it as a long term investment, then it’s something that will benefit your company in the long run and that initial cost is recouped and then some.” Research by Deloittein 2018 put a number on the benefit of D&I: it enhances innovation by about 20 per cent.
Given the historical and systemic nature of institutional racism in large organisations, these aren’t issues that can be resolved in a few months by people who are not given the power to actually enact permanent change.
“Black people need to feel empowered to speak without any fear of consequences,” Adelaja says. “If you don’t empower those groups to actually make changes in your organisation, they will leave that company in search of a company that will actually understand and value them. It’s really incumbent upon the senior management to open up spaces for this conversation, but also empower those groups to change things within the organisation.”*Some names have been changed
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