Real Leaders

10 Things Leaders Get Wrong When Tackling Racial Bias

There is no doubt that there are several leaders out there with the good intention of ensuring all their people are treated equitably, equally, and fairly. Many, moved by emotion and compassion and fuelled by reported statistics, stories of unfairness and racism, make declarations and take steps to drive positive change. These actions include establishing employee resource groups (ERGs), creating forums to share lived experiences, introducing reverse mentoring initiatives, and appointing heads of inclusion and similar.  

However, change remains slow, and while there may be many reasons for this, there are some that lie in the gift of the leader. Here are 10 of them for your consideration. 

1. Not investing enough time in your own self-awareness 

Physician first heal thyself is a saying that works well in this context. Self-understanding and awareness are something that leaders spend less time on than they should, and this makes it difficult to genuinely appreciate the unconscious bias that you have as individuals. Every adult human being is a product of background experiences, parental influence, culture, and so much more. Understanding how these things influence how you relate to other people – particularly people who are different from you – is a step towards tackling racial bias. 

2. Not proactively diversifying your own team of reports 

As a child, my mother often used an expression to demonstrate the importance of first making your own changes before asking others to do the same. That expression is “charity begins at home.” Many leaders who profess to ensure that racism and racial bias are stamped out are likely to have a racially undiverse team of reports. 

Suppose your organization is low on racial diversity. In that case, it minimizes your ability to genuinely appreciate the challenges of what can and must be done in your area of influence to ensure lasting change. Work to bring racial diversity into your team and organization. Set meaningful targets for yourself and your people. Work with your People and HR Team to have an effective onboarding process for all– one tailored to each individual’s needs – and over time, there will be a step towards consistent progress for all. 

3. Not proactively diversifying your HR Teams

HR is the critical partner to leaders in the world of work for your people. It is a leadership profession and is accountable for the well-being and welfare of all the people in the organization. However, the profession which should be taking a leadership role and partnering with the other leaders in the organization is itself not racially diverse, which puts it on the backfoot in its ability to effectively tackle and support colleagues in tackling racial bias. While the governing bodies for the profession provide insightful reports into the extent of the challenge, such as this one from SHRM, there is more to do within the body of the profession itself. If you are not racially diverse yourself, it is difficult to genuinely appreciate the depth of the problem. For example, the equivalent of SHRM in the UK – the CIPD, wrote in its  CIPD Race Inclusion Report that 88% of CIPD members identify as white and less than 10% of HR professionals in the workplace are from a different race to the majority. When you get to more senior levels, the percentage is lesser still, with a small number of Chief People Officers and Chief Talent officers being from a race other than white. 

4. Not going beyond a tick in the box

Many leaders put their entire teams and organizations through unconscious bias training, which can be applauded, especially if done from a place of care. However, the mistake is believing that once training is done, the problem is solved. Eliminating bias will not come from training alone. To take a step towards eradication, adequate resources should be invested in a root and branch review of every people process. Leaders and team members should understand the consequences of not adopting the behaviors required to enable inclusion. In the same spirit, excellent behavior and role models should be called out and recognized.  

5. Appointing a Chief Diversity Officer or Head of Inclusion without support

One way business leaders have demonstrated their stance against racial bias is the appointment at a senior level of a Chief Diversity Officer or Head of Inclusion. This is great as it shows a point of contact and a high level of accountability. The mistake, however, is that several are not provided with the resources required to execute the responsibilities of the job successfully. 

Sometimes they are tucked underneath an HR leadership team with little or no understanding of what it takes to eradicate bias. Therefore, if you appoint a leader into the critical role of leading the diversity and inclusion function in your organization, have them report into the highest level possible, give them a budget that can help make a difference and equip them with the mandate to drive change up and down the organization.

6. Allow denial from others 

Allowing others to deny the existence of racism is a mistake made in some organizations. Racism in the workplace still exists worldwide, as is highlighted in this HBR article. In fact, when there is stated denial, this can be evidence of racism, as highlighted in this article and talk at the University of Rochester, USA. This states that denial is the very heartbeat of racism. When you as a leader act like racial bias is a myth and at the same time allow your leaders and colleagues to do the same, you will enable it to fester. As leaders, you have a duty, a responsibility, and accountability to role model the behaviors that show there is no room in your presence, your team, and indeed your organization for any racial bias. It is unacceptable and undermines the dignity of another human being. Everyone, without exception, has a right to belong and be respected in the workplace. 

7. A reluctance to take a risk

To effectively tackle racial bias in the workplace, there must be a willingness to try the unknown and the unfamiliar. Leaders must role model this. Yet one of the things that leaders get wrong is an unwillingness to take a risk or do something that would be uncomfortable. As leaders, you must be willing to sacrifice your comfort for the team’s greater good. It means being willing to work with that little-known supplier, to challenge your colleagues and yourself on your hiring decisions. It means being willing to back those in the minority, calling for more stretching targets when it comes to race, even though you may be unpopular for doing so. When you choose to be the type of leader who believes that tackling racial bias is the right thing to do, progress can and will be made. Glassdoor recognizes companies who do this. 

8. Acting like all races are the same!

No two people are the same even if they look and sound similar and, even more so, no two races are the same. Therefore, behaving like they are all the same is a mistake. 

Leadership is relational, and while it is essential to ensure you sanction initiatives that give all your people a voice and way of speaking up and speaking out, it is also vital to ensure that there are initiatives in place to address the specific needs of different racial groups. Here in the UK, it is encouraging to learn that the expression BAME is becoming unpopular as it may prevent the real issues and needs of diverse communities of talent from being met, as is illustrated in this BBC report.   

9. Not making the pursuit of love-based leadership a priority 

Love is the unconditional acceptance of all of who I am, warts and all, and the unconditional acceptance of another person warts and all. Black history month presents an opportunity for all leaders and teams to genuinely explore the opportunity and the difference that a love-based culture and leadership would make in their organization. 

If inclusion enables diversity, then love is fundamental to inclusion. In a world and workplace where the pursuit of inclusion is critical, eradicating racial bias must be a prerequisite. When a leader operates from a place of love, they are willing to listen not only to the lived negative experiences of the black talent – and talent with different racial backgrounds – in an organization but a willingness to elicit and act on what can be done to change those experiences into positive ones. 

It is a willingness to put personal, leadership, and career development interventions into place and underpin these with measurable goals. 

10. See racial bias problems as part of your self-mastery as a leader

For the individual leader, love-based leadership is the pursuit of self-mastery – to be the best self possible. You as a leader must do this knowing that the impact you could generate through role modeling this and encouraging it through your teams and organization will result in a workplace culture where everyone without exception feels like they belong. Tackling racial bias then becomes the responsibility and accountability of all. 

Therefore, for every leader who reads this article, if you choose to pursue one thing in your quest to genuinely tackle racial bias, pursue the active presence of Love – that unconditional acceptance of self and others – in the workplace. It is the key that unlocks inclusion and diversity and ultimately eradicates the presence of racial bias and, indeed, any other bias. 

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