Progression of employees from a BAME background: identifying and overcoming the barriers

6 January 2021

According to Diversity UK, in 2018 roughly 13.8% of the UK population was from a minority ethnic background and 40% of the population in London were from the Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic (BAME) background.
Despite the aforementioned, a Business in the Community (BITC) report, Race at the Top: Revisited, published in June 2020, found that just 54,900 of the 3.9 million managers, directors and senior officials in the UK are Black. In the private sector, only 1.5% of senior roles are filled by BAME employees, and this figure has improved by only 1% since 2014.  For those of us in the City, the startling figures in the Telegraph’s headline from June last year may resonate more:  among the Big Four accounting firms’ 3,000 partners, only 11 are Black.
Much has been written on barriers to those from BAME backgrounds in the recruitment process, ranging from issues regarding the wording of an advertisement to outdated selection criteria, to a lack of diverse interviewers. It is a sad truth that, as difficult as it is to get a proverbial foot in the door, that is only the beginning and a BAME employee’s ambitions may then be thwarted by systemic prejudice still prevalent in many UK workplaces. As shown by the figures above, BAME employees undeniably face obstacles to career progression, and employers need to take action.
Every business or employer wishing to do something about this should first determine whether and to what extent issues of slower promotion or lack of progression amongst BAME employee exist in their organisation. If these are live issues, the next step is to carefully examine performance management and promotion practices and identify:
  • the barriers that are driving this inequality; and
  • the positive action they can take to support BAME employees’ progression. 

Determining whether there is an issue - collecting data

Based on the statistics above, it is likely that many, if not most, workplaces have issues of slow or no progression / promotion amongst BAME employees. Although an employer will also want to stay alert to more subtle issues such as unconscious bias, lack of progression or promotion among workers of particular ethnicities is quantifiable, as is the number of BAME employees leaving the organisation (and how soon they do so after they arrive) compared to their non-BAME peers.

According to the independent review carried out by Baroness McGregor-Smith which considered the issues affecting Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups in the workplace and the resulting report published in 2017 (the “McGregor-Smith Report”), the “massive variation between the life experiences of different ethnic groups means it is essential that employers should collect and publish data on the ethnic breakdown of their workforce to ensure that meaningful targets can be set, and more importantly, measured.” 
The McGregor-Smith Report highlighted two key issues employers face when trying to capture relevant data on the demographics of their workforce: (1) the inability of HR systems to capture the relevant information; and (2) issues with employees being reluctant or refusing to disclose the relevant information about race, ethnicity or background. Employers need to be encouraging and open about the reasons why they are collecting this data and what they intend to do with it so that employees can feel more comfortable about providing it.
It is also key that employers collect, record and publish data on the ethnicity pay gap within their organisation, an issue explored in an earlier blog post by Bina Patel, Senior Associate in our firm’s Employment team.  Although there is currently no legal requirement for businesses to collate and publish information about their ethnicity pay gap, there is growing pressure on Government to introduce such a requirement (a petition calling for this received 130,567 signatures over the summer) and a number of organisations have started to do so voluntarily.

Identifying and addressing barriers - Evaluating the data and instigating change

Having first identified and measured the disparities in the numbers of BAME employees accessing senior roles and executive and board level opportunities, employers can then ask themselves what the potential barriers are.
The McGregor-Smith Report stated that employers should ensure that targets reflect the demographics of the workforce, even where that means setting targets locally to account for variations across different parts of larger organisations. The McGregor-Smith Report also suggested that employers may find it useful to capture information on worker qualifications as this could highlight potential talent that is underutilised.
Another potential block to progression is when an opportunity arises from who an employee knows or has worked directly with or for in the organisation. For example, a new management level employee may promote someone they know from a previous team or organisation to work alongside them, rather than looking closely at the existing talent within their new team.  Employers should take care to ensure that roles are fairly advertised and that promotion decisions are not effectively made before interviewing and assessing all candidates who apply.
Other barriers can be less obvious initially. Imagine a scenario where, on paper, a BAME employee had the same opportunity to apply for promotion as their white colleague but only the white employee applied. An employer could assume a number of things – that the BAME employee is not interested in the senior role, or has other priorities – but a supportive and proactive employer would question and examine the situation thoroughly and identify the barrier, which could be, for example, that both employees previously sat in a diverse team and the promotion was to a smaller, all-white leadership team.  So, the BAME employee did not apply because they did not feel confident that they would be offered the position since they did not “fit” with the others in the leadership team.  In those circumstances, the employer, armed with this knowledge, could offer coaching or support to the BAME employee and encourage them to apply next time. It could also set a specific and measureable aspirational target for ethnic diversity in the leadership team.  For instance, aim to make the leadership team include a stated percentage of BAME members within a stated timeframe. This would not only help achieve diversity but also provide BAME role models in more senior positions within the organisation.
Ensuring progression of BAME employees and diversity at senior levels in the organisation can also be achieved (or at least encouraged), by including express targets on this within managers’ appraisal processes and linking progress in this regard to their performance related pay.  That would not only demonstrate a serious commitment to this matter from the organisation, it would also provide a real incentive for managers to pay attention to this issue and ensure improvement where there appears to be a problem.

Change needs to come from the top

Introducing a BAME network and appointing Diversity Champions or Diversity Officers are steps that have been shown to be effective in achieving diversity, but only where there is genuine involvement from the most senior levels of management.  Employers should be discussing race and ethnicity aspirational targets at all senior levels, including board level where applicable, and ultimately aiming to make their boards or most senior management teams reflective of their workforce in terms of ethnicity.
Mentoring programmes and coaching for BAME workers can also effect real change and, more recently, some employers have put reverse mentoring programmes in place. Reverse mentoring schemes generally pair more senior white employees (the mentees) with BAME employees in more junior roles (the mentors), and the idea is that this will help those who are not BAME better understand the perspective of the BAME employee and the challenges they face.  Again, the most senior managers in an organisation volunteering to be mentees and to participate in such a programme would be a clear indication to the wider workforce that the leadership is genuinely committed to change and diversity.  Employers should ensure, however, that they take time to properly explain what is involved in being a mentee in a scheme such as this and that they are clear and firm with regard to expectations that any mentee will fully engage with the programme and prioritise any work that is set as part of the programme.
Employers taking the above steps and striving to improve racial diversity and inclusion should also consider joining other forward-thinking organisations that have signed up to Business in the Community’s Race at Work Charter to show their commitment to this matter both to their workforce and to the world at large.
Another practical step employers can take is to review their recruitment practices and consider working with recruitment consultants who specialise in diversity in graduate recruitment (Kingsley Napley, for example, is proud to be working with Rare Recruitment).  That would help to ensure diversity at recruitment level, that is, the start of the employee’s career with that company.
As the figures show, there is clearly much room for improvement when it comes to the progression of BAME employees in the workplace.  However, it is also clear that change is possible provided there is a real desire to achieve this from the top of an organisation and a genuine commitment to taking real steps to do so, some of which we have suggested above.   

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