Facing up to the issue of race in the workplace

8 min read
29 Jul

Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey is a diversity and inclusion expert who wrote his PhD thesis on the experience of people from ethnic minority groups in the workplace. I asked him to start our conversation by talking about his academic research.

‘I completed my PhD at the London School of Economics. I always say it's about diversity and inclusion, but in truth, it was about race. It was about race, people of colour, Black, Asian and minority ethnic people in the workplace. My approach was different as I looked at it from a growth mindset perspective. So, I acknowledged that there are potential disadvantages in the workplace. We all know what that looks like. We all see that. I said, instead of looking at this group of people as being inherently disadvantaged, what if we looked at them as being resilient, resourceful, talented? It put a completely different spin on the nature of the study.

I did three papers. One was actually about culture and the extent that individuals, their cultural identity and their workplace identity, was in harmony. It was this whole psychometric measure. I did another one about Black accountants and Black lawyers. And that was interesting because being Black in the workplace or in society is a low socioeconomic group in terms of status. But if you're an accountant or a lawyer, it's high status. So, there's loads of conflict and contradictions that are built into that. And then the last thing I did was about employee resource groups, and I did a case study on an employee resource group that was focused on Black employees. And the defining question was: How does it enhance the career of their members? It's all positive, very growth mindset. A lot of other studies compare the experiences of minority groups to white employees. I didn't do that, it was all about minority groups.

You go through a rigorous training schedule to follow a methodology. My PhD is out there, anyone can download it if they fancy reading 90,000 words. It is robust because it has to stand the test of time. The whole point of a PhD is you have to make a contribution, so whatever exists now, you need to add something new to it. And so that's what I chose to do, and I wanted to do it in a very particular way. I'm happy to have done that.’

I asked Dr. Jonathan to talk more about his background, how he got into this area of work and the work he does with clients.

‘I work with organisations to make them inclusive. Typically, I do research, training and consulting. I got into this in 2009 off the back of the Obama inauguration. In January 2009 I was in Washington, DC with friends at the Obama inauguration, which was massively inspiring. Some people might remember that many thought that the world was going to change. I felt that as well. I came back to the UK where I worked as a chartered accountant. I'm a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. The reason I say that quite specifically is because there is a professional monthly magazine called Accountancy. I open it up, and it's got a picture of Obama, and it says, "It does matter if you're Black or white."

The article was exploring the lack of Black accountants in the UK. Now, I knew I didn't meet that many Black accountants, and I used to be an auditor, which meant I used to go to loads of different organisations, but it never occurred to me. It was something that was hiding in plain sight. I went back to my professional membership body, the ICAEW. I said to them, "Hey, I just read this article in this magazine, what's going on?" No one wanted to talk about it. I called the big four accounting firms. I said, "Hey, I've just read this. What do you think?"

The short version is no one wanted to talk about it, no one really knew. I contacted the person who was being interviewed in the article, his name is Dr. Anton Lewis. He was doing a PhD about Black accountants which set me on this path, from being an accountant and just having some curiosity, to actually ending up doing my PhD, to now being a practitioner. It all started because of that magazine.’

Race: a difficult subject?

I asked Dr. Jonathan why he thought people weren’t talking to him about the topic.

‘I think they didn't really know or understand the issue. There is a report that comes out every year, called Key Facts and Trends in Accounting. No one looks at it, but it gives a lot of detailed information about the accounting profession in the UK: who earns what, what their fees are. One of the things reported is the gender demographics of the accountancy profession but they didn't say anything about race or disability.

When I asked them they said that they didn't have the information because it didn't occur to them to ask, and no-one volunteered it. This was about 10 years ago when people weren't really talking about this stuff. If you brought it up, it was more of a pain. Over the past few years, now everyone says, "Oh, we need data, we need data." I've been saying that for years because that was what I needed to do my PhD. But at the time, it wasn't something that was on anyone's radar. There was a lot of ignorance. And when I say ignorance, I mean as in not knowing or not being interested. Fast forward to today, everybody is talking about it.’

I reflected that in recent times businesses are reaching out to diversity and inclusion practitioners to go in and talk to them about race. I asked Dr. Jonathan to share his thoughts about where organisations are currently headed on race.

‘Previously a lot of organisations didn't really care about it. With diversity and inclusion in the workplace, everyone was talking about gender. In the UK specifically, a large part of the reason for that was because of the gender pay gap reporting, which was part of the Equality Act 2010. Now, there have been a couple of government-backed reports, like McGregor-Smith Review and the Parker report all talking about race, either race in senior leaderships or race in organisations. The reports made a lot of recommendations, but no one really cared about it. That's my opinion. Everyone recognised that "It needs to happen," but nothing happened. We also got this ethnic pay gap reporting, which was ready to go. Lots of us were working with the Cabinet Office to see what was going to happen. It was all ready to go, then we had a change of government leadership and nothing happened.’

The impact of George Floyd’s death

‘Race is back on the agenda now. People are concerned about it. It was a cruel combination of a horrific act that was televised. But in truth, Black men, Black people being killed by the police is not an unusual thing. This is the disgusting reality of life, which is why Black Lives Matter is such a profound statement. This stuff happens all the time. It rarely gets any attention. I think it was a combination of the pandemic, meaning that people had pent-up frustrations and everyone's watching their screens. Society, as a whole, responded in disgust. Organisations felt that they had to respond.

Organisations are making these statements. Everyone is falling over themselves to say how they're not racist, they're anti-racist, racism doesn't belong in our society, racism doesn't belong in organisations. I think many organisations are outsourcing the issue of managing racism. What I mean by that is they're making statements about how they'll support the Black community, maybe through charity, or through work with other organisations. The word "community" is used very deliberately. So we see they are going to throw some money at it.

The other thing we're seeing is a commitment to saying, "We'll call out racism wherever we see it." Now, superficially, that sounds like it makes sense, and it does, except when we talk about calling out racism wherever we see it, they're focusing the attention on individual acts of discrimination, so not giving that person a job, using foul language, actually doing things that we can be recognised. That is not the same as addressing the issues of systemic racism that people are talking about, which we're saying have not been addressed. Not so many organisations are saying, "We'll review our policies and processes to understand what racism looks like in our organisation, and address that." That's not what I'm hearing and that's what actually needs to happen.

One of the challenges is that organisations think it's an HR problem. Or they think it's strictly about policy and processes without remembering that there are individuals involved in these processes. When people talk about structural racism or systemic racism, sometimes people think you change the policy and it's okay but it’s not because there are lots of unwritten policies. People talk about unconscious bias and run towards unconscious bias training. I've never been a fan. There's increasing and recent evidence, which reviews the effectiveness of unconscious bias training. It's not as effective as everyone thinks. It's great for raising awareness, but in terms of an effective intervention for addressing racism, there's nothing to suggest that that is a consistent and predictable way of intervening and addressing it.’

I agreed with Dr. Jonathan. With any training people do, half of what is learned is forgotten an hour after the training is completed. People go back to a busy job and don't apply what was learned from your training. That's why it's important to address bias within processes and systems. I asked Dr. Jonathan about micro-incivilities or micro-aggressions, those throwaway comments that people say. Questions like, "Where are you from?" "I'm from Essex." And then, "Where are you really from?" Those questions can be quite insulting to some.

‘I think these behaviours are symptoms of the way individuals have been socialised. A lot of these training and interventions don’t work, such as the one-size-fits-all or the one big intervention. We need to socialise people over time. The prevalence of micro-aggressions reflects what we see in society. It’s a consistent attitude towards Black people, or people of colour, Asian and minority ethnic individuals. Much of that comes from not being socialised or having access to people who are different from you in a meaningful way. It's one thing if I'm the only Black person that you come into contact with and we speak in a professional context all the time, but you actually don't have any idea of my lived experience in a way that you might expect me to have an understanding of your lived experience.

There could be things that I could say to you that would be completely offensive, but I would need to have spent time with you and be socialised to understand that and I know not to say them. This points towards developing cultural competence, being able to understand and engage with others who are different from ourselves. It sounds a bit fluffy when you say it like that, but that's the reality in organisations. There's also a lot of privilege tied up in that. That’s part of the idea of British people travelling abroad and tending not to care that there's a privilege involved with expecting that our way of doing things is the norm and that everyone is going to fit in. There's a lot of that in the workplace as well.’

Addressing privilege

I asked Dr. Jonathan how he describes privilege to people, particularly given that some people get uncomfortable and feel a sense of guilt about the notion of having privilege.

‘I think when people talk about privilege, they don't do it in a very meaningful way. A lot of the time, it's a shortcut or code for white privilege, and that's one thing. But there are many types of privilege. I think privilege is contextual. When you think of intersectionality, it’s about recognising that we've got multiple identities, and therefore any discrimination that we experience could have multiple aspects. There's also a similar thing when it comes to privilege. I think a useful way to describe privilege is as earned and unearned. I'm 6 foot 3 inches and I'm Black. And I'm a man as well. So, being 6 foot 3 inches and a man in society gives you particular advantages. We could call them privileges because I get particular advantages from that.

Being Black lacks privilege, to a large extent, depending on the context, of course. But in the workplace, we can agree that being a tall man, no one thinks that's a bad thing. Being Black, actually, it is. So, it's an intersectional understanding of the individual. My height and being male, those are unearned privileges. I always go on about my PhD, that's a privilege. I've got privilege attached to that, but that's an earned privilege. So, when people talk about privilege, I think it's useful to try and separate the idea of unearned and earned privilege. No one's got a real problem with earned privileges because that's what a meritocracy is. The idea that you can work hard and you can receive benefits, you can be recognised, I think, we all want that. The issue is, is when people benefit from their unearned privilege in a way that others who don't have those privileges aren't able to benefit from. Because that's inherently unfair, and that's what we need to address.’

What should businesses do

For the next part of the conversation, I asked Dr. Jonathan what should a business be doing if they want to focus on ethnicity and race and get real and sustainable change for business and society?

‘We have to remember that businesses exist with the context of a society. Everything that happens within a business is a reflection of what happens in society. When people talk about systemic racism or privilege, there's a concept where we think of racism as a system of advantage. If racism is a system of advantage, there's a racial hierarchy, and racism creates advantages depending on which race you belong to or are perceived to belong to. At the top are people who are White, at the bottom are people who are Black. We can argue about what that looks like in between. What would be useful as a starting point is to address that. It doesn't matter whether you agree with it or not, but to be able to have meaningful conversations about what that looks like and why, in society, with your friends, with your family, in the workplace. That's a starting point.

I don't hear it much anymore, but I used to hear people say things like colour brave and colour blind. I don't think I understand that dichotomy. I don't think it's useful. When you're saying "colour brave," it implies that it's something to be afraid of, and colour blind means that you're choosing not to recognize the differences in ethnicity, in race. When people say to me, "Oh, I don't see your race, I don't see your colour," it's true that maybe you don't or you don’t discriminate or differentiate. But you also have to remember that society does, the police do, employers do, and it makes a difference.

There's a reason why I always introduce myself as Dr. Jonathan. It’s because I can tell you the way that people respond to me is completely different. Even in the diversity and inclusion space, in organisations, when I introduce myself as Dr. Jonathan, it's completely different to if I just turn up, whether I'm wearing a suit or not. It's remarkably different. So when people say they don't see race or organisations say they don't know where to start, just being able to talk about it is a starting point, number one.’

It’s true that saying that you ‘don’t see’ race or in my case, disability, can be quite insulting. I shared that when people say it to me I think, "Hang on a second. I'm sat in a 144-kilogram wheelchair. It's pretty obvious. It’s difficult to miss." If someone doesn't see the whole of me, including being a wheelchair user, that has some practical implications. For example, being invited out to an after-party which I couldn’t get into because the venue was up a flight of stairs. At that point, people had to notice my disability.

Dr. Jonathan agreed, ‘Being able to say that they choose not to see colour or disability is indicative of privilege because it means that actually, in their life or in their world, that doesn't matter. Whereas it might matter to whoever we're talking about. So, what we can choose to see and choose not to see, whoever is making those decisions, often is in a position of power and privilege that they may not realise.’

Looking to the future

I asked Dr. Jonathan what he believes organisations should be doing to really advance inclusion for race and ethnicity in the workplace.

‘Part of the challenge is that organisations are looking for one thing, but there are several things that organisations need to be doing in order to create inclusion. What we say when we work with people is there's at least four. You need to socialise people on an ongoing basis and you need to reconsider support and developmental relationships. It's not all about mentors, it's not all about coaches. It needs to be a combination of each of those. It also needs to be about systems, and this is where you look at recruitment, HR, diversity and inclusion, the policies and the processes, but also the informal systems.

Then there are the solutions. How can you innovate? How can you be creative based on organisations being inclusive with inclusive practices and norms? What we want and what we want to see in the future is innovation. Things that exist now, we want them to stop. And there are other things that we're hoping for, we want them to exist. Use a combination of all of these four things, you're going to be able to create inclusion.’

Finally, I asked Dr. Jonathan what inclusive growth means for his work.

‘It goes back to that point about solutions. Inclusive growth means if we've got a meritocracy, it means that everyone can perform and everyone can belong. If we have those things, we’ll get growth in a way that we can't even think about right now. It's probably quite difficult for us to conceptualise, but what we all need to be doing is working towards what we call a modern meritocracy. We have to remember, inclusion means everyone. It's not about minority groups, it's not about under-represented groups, it's about everyone. Inclusive growth will be an inherent part of that.’

To get in touch with Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey on social media he’s on Twitter and Instagram @JALamptey. He’s also active on LinkedIn and he does a weekly podcast "Element of Inclusion" which informs and educates using applied research and thought leadership with a catalogue of over 150 podcasts.

His website is called elementofinclusion.com.