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Three years after George Floyd’s death, business still has a long way to go

The murder of George Floyd prompted an initial outpouring of DEI commitments by business, but progress has since stalled. Yet there are ways to improve racial equality
George Floyd Anniversary - mural with flowers

On 25 May 2020, George Floyd was brutally murdered by white police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. An onlooker filmed the killing in horror and we all became bystanders to a white officer slowly crushing the life out of a Black man who was pleading for his life. It was both difficult to watch and impossible to ignore. 

George Floyd’s murder – a symbol of the persecution Black people face every day, both literally and metaphorically – went viral. It was a moment that moved people to action.

The truth of the matter is that rising up against racial injustice is nothing new; generations before us have long fought for Black lives and Black rights. What was new in 2020 was the sheer scale of the uprising.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to march in solidarity with those who’ve been murdered at the hands of the police. Millions posted black squares in unification with the fight for racial justice, and monuments and statues that had stood in recognition and honour of colonial figures were torn down or defaced not just in the US but across Europe, too.

George Floyd’s death wasn’t the first of its kind, but it was the first to happen during a global pandemic. That meant the media coverage was inescapable and there was no way to feign ignorance to the struggles of many Black people. Organisations and governments that had long denied that racism and racial inequity existed within their four walls were forced to confront uncomfortable truths. 

What followed was an outpouring of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) commitments, alongside headlines promising to dismantle systemic racism and anti-Blackness, especially in the workplace.

But as the media attention shifted and the news cycle rolled onto something new, action on DEI matters seemed to slow. Despite the initial drive, just six months after the murder of George Floyd, more than half (53%) of Black employees and employees of colour said their organisation had either done nothing or they were unaware of any action their organisation had taken in the wake of this brutal murder, according to a survey by Accenture.

Three years on, the pace of action hasn’t just slowed, for some it appears to have stopped altogether. Not only has recent research indicated that the very DEI leaders who were hired to help organisations build an ethnically-balanced workforce in 2020 are now being phased out, but my own experience as a global DEI practitioner and strategist would suggest that some leaders have simply lost the appetite and desire for DEI altogether. The concern and frustration is that corporations’ talk of affecting change may have been nothing more than performative and crowd-pleasing lip service.

Lack of organisational progress on racial equity

While there have been glimmers of change, sadly it is not hard to find evidence of the lack of significant progress in the three years since George Floyd.

For instance, there is still a deep disparity when it comes to pay. A recent report from the Living Wage Foundation found that 23.1% of Black Londoners earn less than the living wage, as defined by the foundation, compared to 10.4% of white workers. Meanwhile, the pay gap for Black workers has widened at some of the UK’s biggest banks and Black employees still face a steep median pay gap across industries nationwide.

Despite these damning statistics, the government has so far failed to introduce mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting, instead opting for voluntary guidance. While the advice is welcome (ethnicity pay gap reporting is inherently complex), the data indicates such a big gap that the case for compulsory reporting is more than convincing.

Lack of progress on racial parity is apparent when it comes to workplace advancement, too. Despite rising diversity in board appointments, there is still a severe lack of Black representation in leadership roles. In fact, Black employees hold just 1.5% of top management roles in the UK private sector, a figure that has increased just 0.1 percentage points since 2014. 

Why is there a shortfall in progress?

Am I surprised by this lack of change? As a Black woman, I am not. The cycle of high publicity racial tragedy, followed by performative action by the public, organisations, and governments, leading to a return to the status quo, is nothing new. 

A big part of the problem is the lack of organisational accountability. Businesses often introduce interventions that simply do not work; for example, they roll out initiatives during Black History Month, but have little interest in the long-term interventions that are needed. It’s an approach that serves only the leaders who want credit for taking action on matters of DEI and comes at a huge cost to marginalised groups and the individuals within them who carry the weight of discrimination, racism and judgement from within the workplace every single day. 

Needless to say, organisations that are genuinely committed to DEI need to take a step back and start by identifying the problems within their organisation they want to solve, so they can match them with the right solutions.

Four ways to improve racial equity 

By no means are these four actions a recipe for success. Nor will they create change overnight. But these actions will help organisations to meet their DEI ambitions.

  1. Measure and report ethnicity pay gaps
    There’s no doubt ethnicity pay gap reporting is more complex than gender, but organisations that are serious about addressing DEI need to step up and hold themselves accountable. Data gathering is critical, but it’s important to recognise that it’s only the start of the journey. Ethnicity pay gap reporting needs to be followed with a robust strategy and targeted action.
  2. Commit to targeted and regular training for all employees
    Reserving anti-racism and bias training for just one month of the year is a token effort. Organisations must ensure training is regular and repeated to help stop people falling back into bad habits. In most instances when harm, such as discrimination or racism, has taken place, an ally has existed but has failed to step in to protect the victim. It is imperative that privileged employees understand how they show up, the impact they have on their colleagues, and how they can use their privilege positively. Everyone has built-in biases but working to understand them, noticing when these behaviours creep in and taking positive action when they do is essential.
  3. Expand corporate accountability through DEI goals and targets
    While leaders may have bold and inspiring intentions, very few are held accountable for delivering them. DEI initiatives are entirely futile without someone being responsible for them. Corporate accountability is often the missing link that could transform DEI efforts. Another way to establish accountability is to link DEI targets with leadership bonuses and earnings.
  4. Align recruitment with DEI goals
    In my experience, the majority of recruitment processes are littered with discrimination and bias. Within your hiring process, for example, do you only accept Russell Group, Oxbridge or Ivy League applicants or is your internship programme unpaid? I urge HR leads to use their privilege and be active allies to those with less resources and access. Unconscious bias has an almighty impact on the hiring decisions people make; to build more diverse workplaces, organisations have to challenge natural behaviour. If you’re working with an external recruitment company, ensure they are aligned with your internal DEI goals.

George Floyd may have illuminated racial inequality in the workplace, but it is not a remedy to the problem. This is in the hands of organisations. The work is uncomfortable and difficult, but it’s the only way to build equitable workplaces and address systemic racism. Now’s the time to decide: are you in or are you out?

Abi Adamson is the award-winning founder & DEI director of The Diversity Partnership. Quoted in the New York Times as one of the ‘Stars of Black LinkedIn’, Adamson is often described as the future of diversity and inclusion thought leaders