Tackling race inequality and discrimination in organisations

Posted on: 26 October 2023 by Professor Lilian Otaye-Ebede in Research

Tackling race inequality and discrimination in organisations

Professor Lilian Otaye-Ebede’s research seeks to help organisations like the NHS, tackle racial inequality by exploring the experiences of black and minority ethnic (BME) individuals, and proffering lasting solutions to aid the creation of a more inclusive workplace.

Protest activism movements, such as #SayHerName in 2014, or the more recent Black Lives Matter in 2020, have placed a spotlight on the continuing issues experienced by individuals from BME backgrounds.

This sentiment also permeates the corporate world, with organisations grappling with ways to effectively manage a diverse workforce, reduce discrimination and create a more inclusive workplace.

Our research is supporting NHS organisations to develop strategies to ensure employees from BME backgrounds enjoy equal access to career opportunities and receive fair treatment in the workplace.

We explore BME employees unique experiences of microaggression, bullying, harassment and barriers to career progression in the workplace.

To address these, both our research and impact activities argue for a paradigm shift towards holistic and tailored long-term solutions to organisational issues surrounding racial inequality and representation.

The direct insight gathered via interviews and focus groups with BME staff, has served as a foundation to generate improved strategies at organisation and system levels.

As evidence of its impact, we were commissioned by public and private sector organisations, including the NHS Work Race Equality Standard (WRES), Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust and North West Business Leadership Team (NWBLT).

Helping healthcare organisations approach racial inequality

As part of a joint project with colleagues from the University of Sheffield, including Project Lead Professor Jeremy Dawson, our research has contributed to a wider effort to improve the WRES Culture Change Programme.

Through evidence-based guidance and best practice examples, the programme identifies NHS trusts needing support and helps transform workplace cultures, including better race representation in patient facing staff and at senior positions.

However, the programme failed to deliver substantial progress in specific areas, despite internal efforts to tackle race inequality and discrimination.

In particular, these indicators referred to the proportion of BME staff:

  • Experiencing harassment, bullying or abuse from patients, relatives or the public (indicator 5)
  • Staff (indicator 6)
  • Believing their trust provides equal opportunities for career progression or promotion (indicator 7)
  • Experiencing discrimination at work from managers/team leaders or other colleagues (indicator 8)

We were commissioned as part of a research team to identify root causes, consequences and develop robust solutions, to close the gap between BME and non-BME staff perceptions.

The investigation resulted in a baseline report highlighting issues experienced by BME participants and senior management.

This in-depth understanding of issues surrounding inequality, bullying, harassment and abuse, has created a foundation for fresh strategies to improve indicators 5-8 for the overall workforce.

Future plans include providing further recommendations on how to change deep-rooted cultures of race inequality in the NHS system, and early impacts include the creation of the website Workplace EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion).

The website, co-created by WRES and the NHS Race and Health Observatory (RHO), is an evidence-based Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) knowledge-transfer platform with resources for managers to understand research and implement good practice.

Visit Workplace EDI

At a local level, our research is also supporting the NHS Mersey Care Anti-Racist Evaluation Project’s Perfect Care Goal of “zero acceptance of racism, discriminatory and disrespectful behaviours.”

To help scrutinise the credibility and appropriateness of the strategy, and ensure confidence and transparency in the system, the Trust has commissioned us to undertake an independent evaluation aimed at ensuring the effectiveness of the Anti-Racist Perfect Care Project.

The resulting report will inform future changes through recommendations, and annual checks will take place to assess the success of the anti-racist project year-on-year.

These changes are expected to improve not only staff wellbeing, but also the mental and physical care services delivered to more than 1.4 million patients across the North West region.

Changing the way businesses think and act about race representation

In the private sector, the NWBLT have commissioned us to support the development of a set of solutions to increase race representation across corporate members.

NWBLT is an independent business voice which brings together senior leaders within the North West, and helps shape opportunities to drive positive change.

The organisation is committed to championing and leading a cultural change amongst its member organisations to promote race inclusivity and enhance multi-ethnic representation.


Sharon Amesu

Embracing diversity is not just a moral imperative, but also a driver of innovation, competitiveness and overall performance

Sharon Amesu, Co-Chair of the NWBLT’s Diversity Drivers

 As part of a proposal for a new long-term strategic vision for NWBLT and its members, I have worked alongside Dr Samah Shaffakat collating good practice examples of corporate strategies to increase race representation across all organisational levels.

The resulting work, presented in late October 2023 during the She Leads For Legacy Conference, will act as a guide to compel NWBLT member organisations to take action and encourage a holistic approach which includes looking at:

Infrastructure - Staffing and Governance

These are the support systems within the organisation that help shape, guide and direct the internal antiracism processes, policies and practices, a collection of individuals, committees and teams who are tasked with the responsibility of managing and strategically guiding and supporting the success of its race-related diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) drive (ie governance).

Some organisations have referred to them as the race advisory panel, race equality taskforce, race governance team etc.

A strong infrastructure enables adequate planning and decision proactivity as organisations recruit and manage diverse employees, and also ensures that the company’s vision, mission and goals are racially inclusive, and employees understand and align with them.

Most importantly, it ensures leadership commitment, involvement, ownership and accountability, which are key for success. 

As part of our research, we have identified Lloyds Banking Group as a good example of an organisation with a strong and effective governance structure.

Recruitment and Selection

Lack of representation within organisations remains a key issue. 

As representation is a key step towards creating a race inclusive culture, it is important that organisations pay increased attention to their recruitment and selection strategies to remove biases that prevent racially minoritised individuals from entering into their workforce.

Such strategies could include the collective use of inclusive recruitment strategies, such as:

  • Blind hiring practices
  • Anonymous applications
  • Diverse panels
  • Structured interviews
  • Human-centric AI recruitment
  • Positive action recruitment for BME individuals
  • Widening reach and access to enable more racially diverse individuals to apply for roles

In addition, organisations should ensure robust investment is made into training and development of recruitment panels on inclusive recruitment practices, in order to mitigate the risks of conscious and unconscious bias by initial assessors.

What is key to success here is the collective approach rather than one singular practice being implemented.

Training and Education

Research into the effectiveness of diversity training programmes has yielded mixed results, in relation to its ability to produce the desired effect.

Recent scholarship has attributed the lack of effectiveness of diversity training to a number of reasons, including a piecemeal approach, not being well organised, the inadequacy of just one compulsory EDI training program, duration, etc. 

For diversity training to be effective particularly for increasing race representation, removing bias and eventually promoting a health and racially inclusive workplace, certain criteria need to be met:

  • First, training for race representation can only be effective in achieving the desired goals when complemented by other initiatives which target awareness and skills development1
  • Second, these training initiatives need to be conducted over a period of time1
  • Third, they need to be comprehensive, covering various areas such as unconscious bias, multiculturalism, anti-racism, allyship, cultural competency, etc, and offered as a suite of training programmes2
  • Finally, they need to be repeated after a certain period to act as reminders to all employees

Good examples of training programmes that have been effective include:

Progression and Promotion

Lack of racial diversity at senior levels still remains a huge issue in many organisations.

Our findings show that there are some steps which have proven successful in shifting this narrative and creating more opportunities for racially minoritised individuals to progress into senior positions.

These steps include:

  • Implementing programmes that support skills development (see IBM’s Black Talent Programme and Mock Promotion Panels as examples of good practice)
  • Providing support through mentoring and sponsorship
  • Creating opportunities for meaningful networking
  • Creating safe spaces for sharing
  • Where necessary, using ‘positive action’ initiatives, such as:
    • Leadership training programmes aimed at racially minoritised groups
    • Mentoring schemes for ethnic minority staff (when they are underrepresented in senior roles)
    • A ‘tie-breaker’ scenario (recruit or promote a person with a protected characteristic if they are equally qualified as the other candidate)
Race Inclusive Culture and Climate

While ‘race representation’ matters, organisations must proactively seek opportunities to create inclusive organisational environments to increase the prospects of individuals from racially minoritised backgrounds, as without this the recruitment efforts are unlikely to be successful3.

Leaders play a vital role in promoting a racially inclusive culture, as they are uniquely placed to influence racially inclusive environments and interactions across individuals, teams and organisations4.

Research has shown leaders influence on individual perceptions of inclusion amongst racially diverse staff5 and on creating an inclusive climate6.

Given this unique influential position, it is important that organisations equip senior and middle managers with the necessary resources to become racially inclusive leaders.

As a general rule, leaders demonstrating acceptance of employees from a diverse range of backgrounds can develop high-quality relationships, endorsing race-related equality and inclusion within their organisation, and by doing so, greater power sharing and better reciprocal exchanges can be possible7.

Creating an inclusive culture also requires organisations to provide a platform for employees from racially minoritised backgrounds to share their lived experiences, stories and perspectives.

This in turn will provide a learning opportunity for all employees, promote a culture of empathy and respect, and foster a sense of belonging for those from racially diverse backgrounds.

Read the full report: 'Promoting Race Representation and Culture Change'

Our proposal will encourage members to take advantage of an anti-racist online toolkit, to help track race and ethnic representation within their workforce.

By utilising this dashboard, organisations will gain insights into the current diversity landscape, identify areas to improve, and make data-driven decisions to promote racial inclusivity and equity.


'A meta-analytical integration of over 40 years of research on diversity training evaluation'.

'Diversity Training Goals, Limitations, and Promise: A Review of the Multidisciplinary Literature'.

3 'Creating and sustaining diversity and inclusion in organisations: Strategies and approaches' and 'Inclusive workplaces: A review and model'.

'A multi-level framework of inclusive leadership in organisations'.

5 'Leadership, organisational climate, and perceived burden of evidence-based practice in mental health services'.

'What leaders say versus what they do: Inclusive leadership, policy-practice decoupling, and the anomaly of climate for inclusion'.

7 'Inclusive leadership: The essential leader-follower relationship'.


Professor Lilian Otaye-Ebede

Professor Lilian Otaye-Ebede

Professor in Human Resource Management and Organisational behaviour

Director of Studies: Human Resource Management MSc