Senior Consultant Jo Appleby shares her recent experience of working with Cynthia Adebiyi-Yekinni on the UNGC’s Black Lives Matter & Business series.
This series came about in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in May. I have worked with Cynthia Adebiyi-Yekinni at the UNGC for a while, and whilst the death of Floyd shocked me deeply, I could see that it was a different experience for Cynthia, who forced herself to watch the full seven-minute video. It angered and shook her to the core and she felt compelled to do something.
From this point, Cynthia went on a personal process, having challenging conversations and asking difficult questions about diversity in the workplace in the UK. Like many, she recognised the need for more diversity and representation, but what she also noticed was the lack of structure or support out there to help businesses do better. The Black Lives Matter & Business series was born from this realisation.
Of course, all of these issues existed before Floyd was killed. But when something like this happens, and it ignites global frustration, anger and hurt, we need to capitalise on it. It’s very important that there has been this energy and focus and that people have been showing up in their organisations and questioning the lack of diversity they see around them. We all need to look around and ask ourselves if what we see is acceptable.
Some organisations may try to match their employee population to their local demographic, which, in the UK, can often be predominantly or entirely white. But is that good enough? What about any clients or customers that the organisation may have, whose own employees are much more diverse? What about any future Black candidates – will they feel comfortable interviewing for an all-white organisation?
UNGC’s BLM webinars provoke us all to look at our organisations and ask what it is about our recruitment processes that mean we are not attracting any Black people. Ask yourself these questions: Where are you advertising? Are you working with any agencies? Are your job descriptions inclusive? Will you be interviewing with an all-white panel? We all need to be intentional about recruitment processes and consider new methods, such as blind shortlisting and using agencies that cater specifically for Black candidates.
I was fortunate enough to be part of Cynthia’s first BLM & Business webinar, which was centered on storytelling. Storytelling is a hugely powerful tool, with the potential to forge connections between groups of people who may otherwise have remained separated by their culture, history or values. By opening ourselves up to a different perspective and by trying to listen without judgment or bias, we can start to experience something of what life might be like for others.
The webinar took a very simple format, with several speakers sharing their stories about their experiences with routine microaggression and discrimination in the workplace.
One participant spoke about how, from a very young age, her mother had told her that she would have to work harder, be smarter, be more creative, and just be better than anyone else in order to get through life and be singled out for her achievements rather than her skin colour. So that’s what she did. As a mother I found this incredibly affecting. I couldn’t imagine ever having to give this message to my child.
Another participant shared his story of the constant stereotyping questions he gets asked as a Black man: ‘Oh, do you like spicy food?’ ‘Are you any good at dancing?’ ‘Do you like rap music then?’ ‘Can you get me any drugs?’ He told us: ‘I am pretty good at dancing, but that’s because I like dancing. I don’t really like rap music, and I’ve never taken drugs. So why do people think it’s okay to ask me these things?’
Similarly, another participant told us how fed up she is with people thinking it’s okay to touch her hair without permission. It is shocking that things like this are happening in the workplace in 2020. But as a white person, I realised that I’ve never dealt with anything like this. I’ve never walked into a room and felt that I didn’t belong. These stories instilled a deeper understanding in me of the different experiences that Black people go through in our shared spaces. From this understanding and acknowledgement can come action, and this is why stories are so important.
Storytelling is the starting point, but from there we need to be aware of the language we use and the knowledge we hold. One participant explained that he is made to feel like both the problem, as a Black person in a diversity crisis, and the solution, as an easy source of information for white people to go to about how they should deal with diversity matters. We all need to take responsibility for our own understanding of this issue. So don’t rely on your Black friends to explain it all to you. There is a wealth of easily accessible information out there, such as this BLM resource guide compiled by Future Learn. And don’t waste your energy on meaningless, tokenistic actions; gain a proper understanding of the situation, look beyond quick fixes, and be prepared to be held to account.
As part of this educating and questioning process, we also need to address any unconscious bias that we may hold, both as individuals and collectively, as organisations. We all use unconscious bias in our everyday decision-making, as we make judgments based on our past experiences. But if this goes unchecked, it can escalate. Often, we can end up only recruiting people who are like us, and then with an increasingly homogenous workforce this becomes an exponential problem. If you don’t have much diversity in your workplace then you need to think about any unconscious biases you may be holding. Challenge yourself. Involve others in your decision making.
Like many other organisations, here at Impact we are on our own journey towards addressing diversity in our workplace. But we also have the expertise to help others do this. We help people to develop the skills needed to have difficult conversations and to hold each other to account. We enable people to challenge themselves and each other about any unconscious biases they may hold. And we work with leaders to cultivate self-awareness and openness, fostering an environment where diversity, inclusion and belonging can thrive.
Find out more about our work on orgnanisational change.