Ep. 17: Facing up to the issue of race in the workplace


10 min read

Speaker 1: Welcome to the Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon, future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.


Toby Mildon: Hello, and thank you ever so much for tuning in to this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. I'm Toby Mildon. And today I'm joined by a brilliant guest, Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey, who is a fellow diversity and inclusion expert. Jonathan, welcome to the show.


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: Thank you, Toby. Great to be here. I know we've been talking about doing this for a while now, we made it happen, so I'm glad.


Toby Mildon: I know, I'm so pleased that we finally got it in the diary and we're recording this conversation between us. One of the main reasons why I wanted to interview you... There's loads of reasons to interview you, to be honest, but one of the main reasons is because you did a PhD, and you wrote your thesis on the experience of people from ethnic minority groups in the workplace. Can you just tell me a bit more about your thesis, but then we'll go into the really meaty substance of our conversations.


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: Sure, absolutely. I did a PhD at the London School of Economics. It feels like ages ago. But the content of the PhD was all about... When I introduce it, I always say it's about diversity and inclusion, but in truth, it was about race. It was about race, ethnicity, people of color, Black, Asian, minority ethnic people in the workplace. And the approach that I took that was quite different from a lot of studies that are out there is I looked at it from a growth mindset perspective. So, I acknowledge that there is potential disadvantage in the workplace. We all know what that looks like, we all see that. And I said, actually, instead of looking at this group of people as being inherently disadvantaged, what if we looked at them as being resilient, resourceful, talented? And that put a completely different spin on the nature of the study.


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: And 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 very positive, very growth mindset, and it's quite different from what a lot of other people do when they like to compare the experiences of minority groups to white employees. I didn't do that, so it was all about minority groups.


Toby Mildon: What I also like about the work that you've done is that it's very evidence-based as well. 'Cause there are lots of research papers out there and things like that, but they don't seem as evidence-based and as scientific as the work that you've previously done, so it does bring in this element of robustness in terms of what you've created.


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: Yeah. They put you through a really rigorous training schedule to make sure that everything that you do, you have to follow a methodology. And the PhDs out there, anyone can download it if they fancy it, are not a knack. If they wanna read something before they go into a place, it's 90,000 words or something. But it is very robust. There's some very specific processes. It has to be transparent, it has to be... And it has to be something that can stand up to 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. And, yeah, I'm happy to have done it.


Toby Mildon: I'm fascinated by the way that you've done it. Can you tell us a bit more about your own background, how you got into this line of work, what kind of work you do with your clients, that kind of thing? 


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: The way I describe myself is I work with organizations to make them inclusive. I very much talk about the PhD because of this whole evidence-based approach. Typically, I do research, I do training, I do consulting. But the way I got into all of this was actually in 2009, and I started all this at the back of the Obama inauguration. January 2009, I was in Washington, DC, with a number of friends, and we were there at the Obama inauguration, which was massively inspiring. Those of you who remember, watched it on TV, everyone thought that the world is gonna change. And I felt that as well. And so I came back to the UK, and I was working as a charted accountant. I'm a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. And the reason I say that quite specifically is because we get a magazine every month, and in that magazine is called Accountancy. So, it's Accountancy Magazine. You're smiling there because you know how exciting that magazine would be, right? 


Toby Mildon: Oh, yeah.


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: Yeah. So, we've got Accountancy Magazine, I open it up, and it's got a picture of Obama, and it says, "It does matter if you're Black or white." And I remember, it was a journalist called Heather Farmbrough, and was basically 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 organizations, but it never occurred to me... It was something that was hiding in plain sight. So, I went back to my professional membership body, the ICAEW, went back to them. And 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?" No one wanted to talk about it. I contacted all the professional bodies.


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: The short version is no one wanted to talk about it, no one really knew. And so then, I contacted the person who was being interviewed in the article, his name is now Dr. Anton Lewis. He's doing a PhD about Black accountants. And that basically started me on this path, from being an accountant and just having some curiosity, to actually ending up doing a PhD myself, and now being a practitioner. I do research still, I work with organizations, and loads of other things that I'm doing. It all started because of that magazine.


Toby Mildon: Why do you think people didn't wanna talk about it? Why is it such a difficult topic to talk about? 


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: Well, I think, in the first instance, they didn't really know or understand the issue, and it's something that didn't occur to people. Here's another fun fact for you, Toby. There is a report that comes out every year, it's called Key Facts and Trends in Accounting. No one looks at it, right? But in there, it gives a lot of detailed information about the accounting profession in the UK. It talks about who earns what, what their fees are. It's all about professional service firms. And one of the things they talk about is the demographics of the accountancy profession. They didn't say anything about race. They said a little bit about gender, but they didn't say race or disability or anything that we might be interested in, in terms of diversity and inclusion.


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: And when I asked them, and they were based right next to my university, so it's very easy for me to access them, they said that they didn't have the information because, one, 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. And if you brought it up, it was more of a pain. And if you noticed, in the past few years, everyone says, "Oh, we need data, we need data." I've been saying that for years, as you could imagine, 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, as in not knowing or not being interested. Fast forward to today, everybody is talking about it, as you can see and understand.


Toby Mildon: Yeah. 'Cause we're recording this episode a few weeks after the George Floyd case over in the States, and I know that we've had a chat before, and we've received loads of inquiries from businesses to go in and talk to them about race. I've written several articles myself to try and help businesses, get their heads around this. Where do you think race is going in businesses? 


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: Well, I think it's now on the agenda, whether you like it or not. A lot of organizations didn't really care about it. When you think about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, really everyone was talking about gender, they were talking about gender. And if we're talking about the UK specifically, a large part of the reason for that is because of the gender pay reporting, which was part of the Equality Act 2010. Now, there have been a couple of government-backed reports, like McGregor-Smith Review, Parker report, all talking about race, either race in senior leaderships or race in organizations. They made a lot of recommendations, but no one really cared about it. That's my opinion. Everyone recognized that, "Oh, it needs to happen," but nothing happened. We also got this ethnic pay reporting, which was ready to go. I even... You, I, loads 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 in leadership, in the government, so nothing happened.


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: And so, I think now, race is back on the agenda, people are now concerned about it. I'm not sure how much of it is genuine, because I think... It was a cruel combination of a disgusting and horrific act that was televised. But in truth, Toby, Black men, Black people being killed by the police is not an unusual thing. And this is a disgusting reality of life, which is why Black Lives Matter is such a profound statement, because it's saying, "Well, actually Black lives do matter." This stuff happens all the time. It rarely gets the attention that it did. So, I think it was a combination of the pandemic, meaning that lots of people had some pent-up frustrations that some... And everyone's eyes and ears are all on their screens. And the lockdown had just released... This is real combination of several things, which meant that I felt that society, as a whole, responded and were really disgusted by what happened. Organizations felt that they had to respond.


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: So, now, organizations have made a number of 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 organizations. But for the most part, I think that a lot of organizations, they're outsourcing the issue of managing racism. And what I mean by that is, one, they're making statements about how they're gonna support the Black community. That means maybe a charity, or they're gonna work with organizations. And they used the word "community" very deliberately. That, for the most part, is organizations that are outside of their own organization. They're gonna throw some money at it, so that's one thing that we're seeing.


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: Another thing that we're seeing is a commitment to saying, "We're gonna 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, not giving that person a job, using foul language, actually doing things that we can be recognized. 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. And so, not many organizations are actually saying, "We're gonna review our processes, our policies, and we're gonna understand what racism looks like in our organization, and we're gonna address that." That's not what I'm hearing from many organizations, and that's what actually needs to happen.


Toby Mildon: I'm glad you said that because that's very much my approach to diversity and inclusion. I talk about removing the speed humps and the roadblocks that prevent people from getting into an organization or thriving within. And then, in my book, I talk about using design thinking to apply solutions. If, for example, we took the recruitment process, you need to break that recruitment process down into each individual step and understand where the bias or the roadblocks and the speed humps are happening. So, using data... Are Black people, for example, not getting past the second stage interview? And if so, why is that happening? And it's really understanding how people are tripping up.


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: Yeah. You're talking about recruitment processes. And I would agree with that, I would agree with that to a large extent. I think one of the challenges when organizations are dealing with issues like this is they think it's an HR problem, or they think it's strictly about the 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. There's also lots of unwritten policies that are there. People talk about unconscious bias and run towards unconscious bias training. I've never been a fan, and there's increasing research, recent research as well, which reviews the effectiveness of unconscious bias training. And this is one of the unpopular things that I say to people, which is, the evidence shows that it's not as effective as everyone thinks. It's great for raising awareness, but in terms of an effective intervention for... Let's say, if we're talking about addressing racism, there's nothing to suggest that that is a consistent and predictable way of intervening and addressing it.


Toby Mildon: Yeah, I would actually agree with around the unconscious bias training and its effectiveness, because you can put people in a room for two hours and raise their level of consciousness around bias. We even know from learning and development circles that any training that you do, you forget half of what you've learned an hour after you've completed the training anyway, so when you go back to your busy job, you just don't apply what you've learned from your training. And I think that's really why it's important to address bias that's found within processes and systems particularly. But what about those smaller... We might call them micro-incivilities or micro-aggressions, those throwaway comments that people say, like, "Where are you from?" "I'm from London." And then, "Where are you really from?" That's quite an insulting question to some. What are your thoughts on those smaller micro-incivilities? 


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: Yeah, they exist, and I think all of these are symptoms of the actual behaviors of individuals in the way that they've been socialized. And you pointed out correctly, a lot of these training and interventions, they don't... The one-size-fits-all approach or the one big intervention approach, it doesn't work. What needs to happen is that we need to socialize people over time. The prevalence of micro-aggressions reflects what we see in society, and it's a consistent attitude towards Black people in this case, or people of color, Black, Asian, minority ethnic individuals. And a lot of that becomes from not being socialized or having access to people who are different to 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.


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: And so there could be things that I would say to you that would be completely offensive, but I would have to have spent time with you and be socialized to understand that. So, this all points towards cultural competence, really, being able to understand and engage with others who are different to ourselves. And it all sounds a bit fluffy when you say it like that, but that's the reality in organizations. There's also a lot of privilege tied up in that. And when I say privilege, there's an expectation that... There's things that we say and understand that everyone who's born in this country and speaks a particular... Even speaks a slang in a particular way would get. And we take things for granted. But the real point I was bringing up is, when English people travel abroad, a lot of the time is we expect other people to speak English. We expect other people not to adjust. And so there's a privilege. If you think about if you've ever been on holiday in the past year, 18 months, we probably expect... Did you put that much attention into learning another language? 


Toby Mildon: Not really, no. I can't even remember the last place I flew to. I think Washington, DC, that was the last place I flew to.


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: There you go. But the idea of English people traveling abroad tend not to care that there's a privilege involved with expecting that our way of doing things is norm, is the norm, and everyone is gonna fit in. There's a lot of that in the workplace as well.


Toby Mildon: Yeah. I've talked to people about privilege, and I think some people get quite uncomfortable about it, 'cause one reaction is to feel a whole sense of guilt about one's privileges. And I explain to people, actually, "You can't really help your privileges in a way because it's what you were born into." And the way I describe it to people is, "If we're running a race, you just might be a few paces ahead of somebody that's behind you, and therefore it's easier for you to get to the finishing line of that particular race." How do you describe privilege to people that haven't come across it before? Because it's not actually one of those things that we talk about very often. In the D&I circles, we do, it comes up quite often. But general day-to-day work, don't think privilege comes up very often.


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: Yeah. And I think when people talk about privilege, they don't do it in a very meaningful way. A lot of the time, when they're talking about privilege, it's a shortcut or code for white privilege, and that's one thing. But there are many... I think privilege is contextual. And so when you think of intersectionality, recognizing 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 of privilege, a useful way to describe it is earned and unearned privilege. I'm 6 foot 3, and I'm Black. And I'm a man as well. So, being 6 foot 3 and a man in society gives you particular advantages. We could call them privileges, right? 


Toby Mildon: Yeah.


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: You 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 6-foot3 man, all intents and purposes, no one thinks that's a bad thing. Being Black, actually it is. So, it's an intersectional understanding of the individual. Being 6 foot 3, and being a man, 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. Why? Because that's what a meritocracy is. The idea that you can work hard and you can receive benefits, you can be recognized, 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.


Toby Mildon: I really like the way that you've put it, the kind of unearned and earned privileges. Because, yeah, I have found myself in situations where I'm not privileged or I do have privileges in that I'm a white bloke. I'm also... I was born with a disability, I've spent all of my life in a wheelchair. I'm also gay. So, there are situations where I've had earned privileges, but also been in situations of unearned privilege. That's a really great way of putting it. What should businesses really be focusing on? If they really want to focus in on ethnicity and race, what should they be doing, in your opinion, so that they're not wasting time or energy, and so that they are getting real sustainable change for business and society? 


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: Well, I think... Well, we have to remember that businesses exist in society. Everything that happens within a business is a reflection of what happens in society. And so when people talk about systemic racism, when people talk about 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. And at the top of that hierarchy are people who are white, at the bottom are people who are Black, and we can argue about what that looks like in between. And so what would be useful starting point is to address that. It doesn't many 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.


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: Often, I don't hear it much anymore, but I used to hear people say things like color brave and color blind. I don't think... I understand that dichotomy. I don't think it's useful, 'cause, one, when you're saying "color brave," it implies that it's something to be afraid of, and color blind means that you're choosing not to recognize the differences in ethnicity, in race. And it's not to say that you need to discriminate or you need to differentiate, but it's also to recognize that society differentiates and discriminates. So, when people say to me, "Oh, I don't see your race, I don't see your color," it's true that maybe you don't. But you also have to remember that society does, the police do, employers do, and it makes a difference.


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: There's a reason why I always introduce myself as Dr. Jonathan, 'cause I can tell you the way that people respond to me is completely different. Even in the D&I space, in organizations, 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. These things exist now. So, when they say they don't see race or organizations, don't know where to start, just being able to talk about it is a starting point, number one.


Toby Mildon: Yeah. I find it quite insulting myself when... People have said to me, "Oh, I don't see your disability." And I'm like, "Hang on a second. I'm sat in a 144-kilogram wheelchair, it's pretty obvious, it's pretty difficult to miss." And actually, if you don't see the whole of me, and that includes me being a wheelchair user, that actually has some practical implications because I've been invited out to an after-party, for example, where the venue was up a flight of stairs, and I couldn't go to the party. So, people had to notice my disability. Yeah, this is a really interesting point.


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: I know. And it also goes back to privilege as well, because being able to say that they choose not to see it is indicative of privilege because it means that actually, in their life or in their world, that doesn't matter. Whereas it matters to you. It might matter to me. 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 realize.


Toby Mildon: Yeah. Before we get to the end of our conversation today, what one other thing should organizations be doing to really advance inclusion for race and ethnicity in the workplace? 


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: The challenge I've got with that is that I would say there isn't just one thing. I think part of the challenges organizations are looking for that one thing. In fact, there are several things. There are several things that organizations need to be doing in order to create inclusion. What we say when we work with people, there's at least four. You need to socialize people on an ongoing basis, you need to reconsider support, developmental relationships. It's not all about mentors, it's not all about coaches. It needs to be a combination of each of those. Needs to be about systems, and this is what you talk about a lot in terms of the recruitment, the HR, the diversity and inclusion, the policies and the processes, but also the informal systems.


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: And then there's the solutions, which is how can you take... How can you innovate, how can you be creative based on organizations being inclusive, inclusive practices, inclusive norms? What we want and what we wanna see in the future is basically innovation. Things that exist now, we want them to stop. And there's other things that we're hoping for, we want them to exist. Use a combination of all of these four things, you're gonna be able to create inclusion. But, unfortunately, I don't think there is one single thing.


Toby Mildon: Yeah, I have to say to my clients that diversity and inclusion, in general, there's no silver bullet. It is a very multifaceted approach to creating inclusion workplaces. And when I do find that silver bullet, then I'm gonna be a very well-off bloke and very famous in the D&I circles. Jonathan, thank you ever so much for joining me on this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. Before we go, what's your opinion on inclusive growth, and what does inclusive growth mean to you? 


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: Well, I think it goes back to that point about solution. 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're gonna get growth in a way that we can't even think about right now. It's probably quite difficult for us to conceptualize, 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. We have that, the inclusive growth will be an inherent part of that.


Toby Mildon: Brilliant. And if the person listening to this episode wants to follow your work a bit more closely or get in touch with you, what's the best way of doing that? 


Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey: Well, if you wanna get in contact with us on social media, we're on Twitter, we're on Instagram, @JALamptey. I'm also on LinkedIn, I'm quite active on LinkedIn. What a lot of people know me for is my podcast, which is called the "Element of Inclusion." And every week, we inform and educate using applied research and thought leadership. We've been doing that for over three years, we've got over 150 episodes, so that's where you can find us. And our website as well, if you wanna connect, is elementofinclusion.com.


Toby Mildon: Brilliant. I highly recommend tuning in to your podcast. I would have to say it's probably the second best podcast in the world. [laughter] This one, the Inclusive Growth Show, is number one, of course. [laughter] But it's always fun following you on social media. I highly recommend getting in touch and following you on social media, 'cause you've always got loads of interesting stuff to say. Jonathan, thank you ever so much for joining me. I've really enjoyed our conversation. We could talk for a lot longer... We try and keep these episodes fairly short so somebody can listen to an episode on their commute in to work, for example, but we could go on for hours. But, Jonathan, thank you ever so much for joining me today. And thank you for listening to this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. I hope that you can join me on the next episodes, which will be coming up very soon. But if you know somebody who might be interested in following the topic that we talked about today, please do forward this episode on to them as well so that they can listen as well. Until then, thanks very much, and I will see you again soon.


Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to the Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at mildon.co.uk.