Boyden Executive Search

Nick Robeson, Managing Partner, Boyden UK & Ireland, describes how "BAME" has been seen in the workplace to-date and what can be done in order to support change and diversity moving forward.

By Nick Robeson
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Reducing centuries of supremacy, world culture and generations of hardship to a convenient acronym only serves to dilute the importance of recognising the value of each one that lies within. Black, Asian and other ethnic minorities deserve to be recognised for their own individual cultural richness and the value that can bring to our organisations.

It has taken just under two months for the outpouring of outrage following George Floyd’s death to slip into the back pages of the news. In the comfort of our homes, our conscience is somehow soothed by watching sports men and women taking to one knee ahead of the matches we are all so desperate to watch following our COVID confinement.

Corporate statements and apologies have been made, placating shareholders and appeasing senior executive teams. Now it is back to business as usual - if dealing with the threat of the pandemic, Brexit and a significant recession ahead can be called ‘usual’.

What has become clear to me throughout my research is the convenience the acronym “BAME” provides as a sop for generations of neglect, oversight, and apportionment. The convenience lies in the way, by bundling all these categories together into one, we (white people) are provided with a noble cause by which we can feel engaged with such a complex subject whilst at the same time justifying our inability to deal with the real issue that must remain in the spotlight for some time to come.

The real issue is the matter of black lives.

Hence why “BAME” is now seen as a four-letter word by some members of the black community. It unfortunately deflects attention from their cause and allows well-intentioned leaders in the world of inclusion to conveniently hit diversity of colour targets rather than focusing on any missing ethnicity.

The last 6 weeks of very deliberate outreach from me to friends and business colleagues known and new, has been to listen, review and challenge my understanding of the issues surrounding the inclusion of black people at management and executive level in the UK. For those that have not had the chance to do this, I strongly recommend it - but it does come with a word of caution. 

Be prepared to both undo your predetermined ideas and knowledge and to challenge your own biases.

International, Irish by birth and passport (albeit I did have a spell supporting England RFU), non-racist, inclusive, blind to colour and sexuality was how I entered this series of conversations. By the time I completed over a dozen calls with senior black executives who have fought, and continue to fight the daily battle to succeed in business, I knew so much more about many of the already journaled issues of white privilege and unconscious bias.

One of the main observations is the sheer level of fatigue. Imagine waking up in some bizarre ground hog day scenario where, day after day (rightly or wrongly), you believe you must prove yourself to be twice as good as your white peer. Or worse, that even having made it into management you still, in 2020, have some overhanging doubt if it is based on actual merit and not that you are ticking someone’s diversity box. I found one discussion hard to process where within whose community terms such as “house” and “field” would apply to the modern interpretation of what might still be understood by many as white- and blue-collar workers.

But I did identify a substantive conundrum around our ability to shift the dial over the next five to 10 years. If we are to significantly turn the dial on black equality in the corporate world, we must let go of the false argument that black equality must be driven by black people and at the same time, the idea that any white person stepping forward to engage in this difficult subject is simply rowing a boat for white redemption. The Black Lives Matter movement has provided us all with the opportunity to work together, to learn and to deliver on the promise of greater diversity.

Executive Search is a key player in the orchestration of executive leadership teams. Yet, on a recent Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC) call with 30 other Executive Search Firm "CEOs", not one represented a person of colour and just 4 were women.

According to Business in the Community, the group founded by the Prince of Wales to support responsible business, black people hold just 1.5% of the 3.7m leadership positions across the UK’s public and private sectors. If the supply chain of executive talent (Executive Search firms) and the change agents (executive teams and boards) are made up of such an overwhelming imbalance of diversity (90% white) then nothing will fundamentally change unless they hold themselves responsible, through however much discomfort, to make the changes required to ensure greater minority representation.

Through our expertise in building high performing teams, we are in a unique position to educate, prepare, challenge, and push our clients and ourselves to do better. In parallel, the Executive Search industry needs to enhance its own diversity to ensure that we are truly representative of our clients and our clients’ consumers. Whilst I am proud of Boyden’s track record in our UK operation there is still work to do.

I do see one unintended consequence of the Black Lives Matter campaign. Many well intentioned organisations will look to add diversity of colour to their teams without preparing the ground for inclusion. The net result could lead to tissue rejection or even worse, organ failure. The cost of this would be to damage a fantastic hard-fought career. In one recent press release, a global executive search firm highlighted the appointment of a Chief Diversity Officer. On the surface this is fantastic news but why did the article sit tucked away in their Investor Relations pages? Taking diversity seriously is not a PR exercise.

Organisations prepared to make the change must be prepared to invest in ensuring that their business and senior teams are enabled to embrace diversity. As we widen our lens on potential talent, the importance of this phase of recruitment is profound. You would hope that no one would wish to hire diversity into its team without ensuring that the groundwork had been done to ensure the appointment was for the long-term benefit of both Company and Executive. This is, after all, someone’s career you are dealing with.

As with female representation, we must place targets on hiring diversity of colour. We must stop using “BAME” as a catch all and spell out Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic. Embrace the words not the letters and, as we seek measurement for everything else, we must measure and be accountable for our results.

My thanks to all who contributed and helped me to process in greater depth the challenges surrounding this complex subject. If you have connected with this blog in any way please do share it with your network.

Some reference material:

https://www.globis.co.uk/news/2020/6/16/response-from-globis-mediation-group-to-the-black-lives-matter-campaign

https://diversityuk.org/mckinsey-report-delivering-diversity/

https://hbr.org/2020/05/diversity-and-inclusion-efforts-that-really-work

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