In March 2021, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities reported on the nature and causes of race inequality in Britain. The Commission was established in the shadow of the Black Lives Matter movement. It identified 24 recommendations to address inequality and discrimination. The report was not without controversy, with much focus on the Commission’s comments around unconscious bias training and the use of the term ‘BAME’. Twelve months on and the Government has published its response and made 74 “concrete and comprehensive actions” to open up opportunities for ethnic minorities.

Many actions focus on public issues. These range from dealing with online racial abuse to addressing public trust and health disparities. However, a select number will require support and work from employers. The Government plans will also impact employers’ existing diversity and inclusion work, and initiatives on racial inequality and social mobility.

In this article, employment partner Audrey Williams explains the suggested proposals and action for addressing race inequality in the workplace and highlights what employers should consider and implement to ensure inclusion and the continued promotion of race equity in the workplace.

Who faces disadvantage? Talking about and measuring race in the workplace

The response recognises that ethnic disparities cover a wide range of different groups, including in some areas (educational attainment and school expulsions being one) disadvantage for white pupils. It warns against categorising ethnic minorities into umbrella groups and reminds us that significant differences exist amongst ethnic groups. For example, differences in disadvantage and outcomes dependent upon whether an employee is Black or Asian, with the latter often being more likely to face adversity. Employers must increasingly recognise this and therefore, race equality strategies should be broader and all encompassing.

“A person’s race, social or ethnic background must not be a barrier to achieving their ambitions.”

Using umbrella terms such as BAME, and measuring/reporting against them, can be unhelpful, even acting as a smokescreen. As the Government states, analysis of binary groups (white and non-white) masks true disparities, is counterproductive and might even allow “organisations to claim they are making progress when in fact only certain ethnic groups may be advancing.”

Disaggregating groups, particularly when it comes to reporting on progress or for example, putting in place positive action and sponsorship programmes, will become increasingly important.

This raises the question, which categories to use? Given the report says that the Government will be using the ethnic classifications from the ONS census, this should be seen as a steer for employers.

Instead of BAME, more appropriate language should be used, such as “people from ethnic minority backgrounds”. Guidance from Government on the need for more sensitive language when talking about race was issued in December 2021 to support this.

Employment actions and expectations from employers

Some of the planned actions set out in the report will involve employers. Organisations should revisit their action plans/race strategies, and some may want to start thinking about how their business can contribute to the Government plans:

  • Schools, Higher Education Institutions and UCAS are called on to provide better careers advice, opportunities for apprenticeships and a planned state scholarship programme, to improve academic attainment and social mobility amongst under-represented groups. All of this will be of interest to employers.
  • There is a commitment to improve progression and provide in-work support to help individuals climb the career ladder, through Progression Champions in Job Centres. There is the expectation that employers do the same in their own workplaces.
  • Greater diversity amongst boards, school governors and academic trustees is identified as important, to genuinely represent the communities they serve as well as being visible examples of achievement. Some employers have volunteering and CSR policies to encourage this and these will continue to have an important role to play.
  • An Inclusion at Work Panel will be created (by Spring 2023) comprising academics and practitioners, to develop programmes and leadership skills and function as a resource for employers. This resource should be aimed at embedding inclusion and addressing bias in the workplace.
  • By Autumn 2023 a new Inclusion Confident Scheme will be available, which organisations can voluntarily sign up to and adopt to demonstrate their commitment to inclusion.
  • Finally, to support and encourage employers to make use of positive action (and perhaps be more confident about what they can do within the law), updated guidance is expected to be published by the Government Equalities Office by the end of 2022.

Ethnicity pay reporting

There has been an ongoing debate about introducing ethnic pay reporting obligations for large employers (similar to the existing gender pay reporting requirements already in place). Many had expected legislation on this topic to be brought forward before now. However, it is clear from the response that the Government considers it too early to mandate large employers to report on their ethnic pay gap. Such reporting will be encouraged on a voluntary basis, but action here will be limited to providing support through new guidance.

BEIS has been consulting with employers and others on this topic for the past three or more years. It became clear that the proposals raise significant questions about data, confidentiality and how to define the different ethnic groups to be reported on. The response states:

“a meaningful pay gap reporting standard for ethnicity will necessarily need to be very different to one for gender reporting, which uses just 2 categories. This complexity means that ethnicity pay gap reporting would be a more resource-intensive activity for business.”

For employers, this means watch this space (guidance is expected later this year: Summer 2022 is promised). The promised guidance will focus on benchmarking in this area and best practice. This approach allows more flexibility for those employers who are reporting already or thinking about doing so.

A word of caution – more claims?

Organisations may face increased challenges, both internally and through legal action, from individuals and the Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Increased funding will be provided to the EHRC by the Cabinet Office which will allow for more formal investigations (these can be conducted by the EHRC in a specific employer or sector), as well as funding for individual claims. The Race Legal Support Fund has already been launched to enable individuals, through their legal advisers, to get help to fund complaints of race discrimination, harassment and victimisation. Given the increased risks, employers should tread carefully when addressing race discrimination issues, grievances and complaints going forward.

Although some may be disappointed by the delay in compulsory ethnic pay reporting, there are proposals and actions in the report that will require significant action from employers and provide further information and action for those already taking steps to improve race equity in the workplace.

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This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.