HR is struggling just as much as any other department to hold on to ethnic minority professionals as they climb up the corporate ladder.

Since the much-needed rise in publicity of the Black Lives Matter movement, we have continued to see company after company show their public commitment to making changes in support of their Black , Asian and Minority Ethnic colleagues. Promises were made at the start of the pandemic to help make lives more fair for minorities. But the results to date are disappointing. The latest study by the Resolution Foundation reveals that Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority workers who have been hit the hardest by the pandemic with 22% of them losing their jobs. It’s a heart breaking statistic, and brings to light the harsh reality of companies not doing their part in ensuring true equity for their colleagues.

More often than not, ensuring diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) is often a responsibility led and owned by the HR department. Given that HR is deemed to be the moral hierarchy and example setters, it seems only natural that they would be able to guide us into a better, anti-racist society. But in reality, just how well-equipped are HR departments to deal with workplace DE&I and racial equality? 


If we look into the racial make up of HR departments, we see that a staggering 89% of the industry is made up of White professionals. While 18% of junior/entry level positions are from Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority backgrounds, this figure disappointingly drops to just 7% at senior levels in HR. Despite HR’s ability to attract a healthy number of ethnically diverse talent to the profession, it fails to retain them in mid/senior levels. This is a pattern that’s echoed in most industry sectors. Given this finding, one could question HR’s ability to help their organisation’s other departments achieve their DE&I targets, if its own house isn’t in order.

If we delve deeper into why HR fails to retain people from Black, Asian & Ethnic Minority backgrounds, it’s apparent that this profession also has its fair share of stories on micro aggressions, racial stereotyping and lack and obstruction/bias around promotion opportunities. According to a recent survey carried out by People Management magazine, 69% of Ethnic Minority HR professionals felt their career progression had been impacted by their race, whilst only 9% believed that job opportunities were fairly equal. On the other hand, a much larger 42% of White respondents believed that job opportunities were fair for all, showing a clear lack of awareness and consensus on how race impacts opportunities amongst colleagues. 


If we also look at the results of the CIPD’s membership survey, it shows that just 21% of the HR profession identifies as male. Interestingly men account for the majority of the senior leadership positions in HR, often taking up the position having come from a different part of the business. So in short, the profession is seeing a steady and consistent hiring of White men into senior HR roles without HR experience, whilst Ethnic Minority females are dropping out from the profession at alarming rates. 

Men account for the majority of the senior leadership positions in HR, often taking up the position having come from a different part of the business.
Image credit: Pexels

The other problem with HR leading diversity initiatives is HR’s portrayal of being inclusive and progressive, just because of its ability to employ far more females than males. But if we look at the real structures of HR departments, it’s apparent that senior leadership positions are mostly taken by White men who have a large number of senior White females reporting to them. So how much space do we leave for criticism and analysis, when the organisation assumes HR to be the most progressive part of the business? If you’re in the HR department with a complaint, to whom do you complain to about HR?

There in lies the dilemma. Is HR adequately equipped to deal with workplace DE&I and racial equality matters? And how can organisations ramp up the HR department’s ability to deal with it and achieve successful results?


So what’s the solution? First it’s about raising awareness. Not just with HR leaders and teams, but also with CEOs who are depending on these teams for guidance. We can no longer assume that HR as a department is automatically an expert on race inequality in the workplace. Companies should look to complete race audits in their HR teams first. If they are responsible for driving culture, recruitment and retention then we must ascertain how they do this within their own teams first. Can they ensure that Ethnic Minority colleagues gain access to the same opportunities as their White counterparts? And if there are no Ethnic minority colleagues, then they need to explore why.

Another solution is to ensure DE&I is kept separate from HR. It’s vital to recognise that these roles are very different. More and more companies are creating DE&I positions and teams, which sit outside of HR with direct contact and reporting lines to the CEO and board. This helps to ensure that HR, like any other part of the business, can be held accountable for any inequality/disparities, and able to make systemic changes. 


However, if organisations want to retain DE&I under HR, then it’s vital that they ramp up on their expertise either through education and training. They can also do this through employing external experts to ensure they get the guidance they need on delivering DE&I targets in the areas of recruitment, promotion and engagement. In addition, they should consider employing external specialists on race equality matters instead of promoting existing HR staff who don’t possess the specialised knowledge, if they really want to make an impact. 

When building a DE&I team, companies should also look to their existing employees who own/run affinity groups. Companies are filled with extremely passionate individuals who dedicate and volunteer their own time to running these groups on top of their existing role. These people are invaluable as they have the knowledge of lived experience, even though they may not carry the DE&I title. Not only would HR gain invaluable expertise, but the company would also be seen to give opportunities to those who might not usually access them. Now isn’t that one of the main goals of inclusion? Food for thought and please share your comments below

Written by Imrana Ali