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Head2Head with Shereen Daniels

Shereen Daniels is Managing Director of HR rewired, a Vice Chair of Black Business Association (London Chamber of Commerce & Industry) and she recently spoke with Jennifer Gaster of HR Heads about her work and some of the common challenges she sees in the organisations she works with.

How did you get into HR?

Well like most people, by accident! However, I will say part of my degree in Business and Psychology had a few HR modules but I did think I actually quite like this. I thought I was going to be an Organisational Psychologist! 

I did work for a temping company called ‘working girls’ you couldn’t get away with a name like that now! I did general administration, trying to find my first HR assistant role, and I got there eventually.

Watch the Head2Head with Shereen

Black Lives Matter has really bought the issue of racism front and centre of business, what common challenges do you see in the organisations you work with?

First of all, for most of my corporate career, I deliberately did not touch diversity and inclusion even when I was asked to speak at HR conferences I always changed the topics slightly to fit what I wanted to talk about, partly because I felt like being internal and seeing the challenges faced and now I am out of it is the same challenge. 

And, because people are so uncomfortable talking race, about racism, to the extent that they might even stutter over the word black, what happens is you never get to the crux of the conversation. So, diversity, equity and inclusion become about everybody else. It becomes about women, about different communities because they are easier conversations to have, it is not that the issues are easier. 

It is not a competition from that point of view but realistically you can go and talk about why there aren’t enough women in director roles and nobody is going to flinch, you are going to get the support to go and do something and you can put it on your website that you are supporting women, disability, LGBTQ+ but something about racism and black people makes people deeply uncomfortable, which means they do nothing. 

With the context of the protests that happened last year, what you are finding is probably a third, a third and a third. 

You had a third of organisations who were very plugged into the social consciousness of this, they are the Ben and Jerry’s, the Walmarts, they are the big companies with a history of doing something specifically around equity and easing things for the black community. 

Then you have the people in the middle, who went oh my goodness we didn’t really take diversity and inclusion very seriously but now we need to. And off they went to hire D&I people. 

Then you have the last third of people who are like when will go away! Not only do they probably feel uncomfortable, but some of them also don’t actually understand why this is such an issue. 

So, in terms of the three groups of problems I face here and in the US, if we take this middle group of people that want to do something, there is a desire they just don’t know how. 

In this group what you tend to find is because we think about it in terms of traditional business problems, which means we apply traditional business thinking, we have a problem with this racism thing quick we need a Chief Diversity Officer or get the Chief People Officer to come up with a strategy. Very few people understand what racism is, and you can tell they don’t understand it because some of the actions they take can look formative, I call it style over substance, so you have statements, you have hashtags, marketing materials with more black faces on than before, but it isn’t just about behaviours, you have to understand the different ways it shows up, and you have got to get into those difficult conversations about racist ideologies and this is the bit where people want to hide.

I think firstly we spend too much time trying to fix people, therefore what we don’t do is think about the systems, policies and practices and then the behaviours that link all of those.

In HR we are used to thinking about the policy, culture change programmes and all of those things have a place but that is the icing it is not the cake.

What has happened from 20-30 years ago is we were thinking that diversity an inclusion was going to solve all of this magically, even though we didn’t talk about it. So when you are getting to this point now when you are hiring in either more black people because you are looking at visual representation, or you are hiring a D&I lead, you have got to think about understanding enough about the problem, because if you don’t what will happen is you will end up putting time, energy and money into things that don’t make any difference. 

It is the lip service. It is not intentional, but some people are thinking that if they are busy doing then nobody is going to say that they haven’t done anything, but what they are not understanding is that the increase of social pressure is also the increase of social knowledge. What happens is people are looking at what you are doing, and if they know more than you, and you haven’t done a little more of the digging, they will say they understand how you are hiring this person or doing this, but how is that going to address systemic racism, institutional racism and all of those things. To answer you have to know what all of those things are.

How do you unpick those layers when you consult with those organisations?

I think there are two entry points with what we do, we are an HR consultancy but we only specialise in anti-racism, so our job is to get people started and help them stay the course. 

Executive briefings are what I spend most of my time doing. That is when I talk to the board, there is a bit about my story, how I got here, how plugged in I am and therefore the company is in this issue. 

They have to understand and feel reassured that they are safe for the brave conversations to start. So my credibility, my influence in this space will help them get off to a confident start, but my job is not to make them feel safe, it is to create safety and for them to then have brave conversations. We start the dialogue at that point, I have seen it when I have gone in and HR took the journey but the board is not bought in, because they don’t understand.

How do businesses make D&I a fundamental part of the soul of the organisation?

This is a lifelong work. What I say to boards and chairpeople is that you have got to be OK with starting on this journey knowing the change that you so desperately want to see is going to be after your tenure is done. 

It is going to be a rolling agenda item in some way, shape or form. This is an issue that has been going on for 400 years. Diversity and inclusion came out of the civil rights movement, it was for black people to be treated fairly in the workplace. 

Here we are 60 years later and it has not worked.

What I encourage leaders to think about is that the consciousness of the world is changing, this is about thinking that you have got to be seen to be part of the solution, you cannot be seen to be perpetuating the problem. 

Silence is perpetuating the problem, a lack of understanding is perpetuating the problem. The hard bit is listening to this talk and then having a debate and discussion about terminology and then it is listening to your black colleagues if you have any and then you start with what does the anti-racism framework look like, how do we engage with key stakeholders, and how do you measure?

How do you measure success?

By the time they have finished working with me they understand that our preference for facts, figures, objectivity and case studies is inherently an aspect of racist ideology so they stop asking me that question! 

It is the cost of what you can’t do as a business. I did a live session with an impact investor who talked about the fact that when he sees all white businesses, he is not making a judgement call, but he is questioning their judgement. What he was saying is that you will look at the world through one lens, which means you are going to miss opportunities. 

We live in a globalised society. I do things here and I’m talking to people in the US, so if you don’t think differently about how you diversify your business you are missing out on market opportunities and new territories. What you are also doing is putting a very big sign to your customers and clients saying this isn’t part of your gig. 

Now you may retain people who, like you, are saying that but you have to ask yourself if they are the types of clients and customers you want for the future. 

Sometimes you need an external person to challenge and unpick. My job is not to convince people that racism is a thing, I cannot do that. My job is to help you get started and to make sure you are addressing the real issues and impacts. 

For too long we have been happy with a statement, a safe measure and we have never addressed the route cause.

The thing we have to be careful of is recruitment getting the short stick, everyone blames them for not having a diverse workforce. You can de-bias a process to within an inch of its life but when those individuals start into an organisation if they haven’t tackled those systemic issues and they are then calling you three months later saying this isn’t for me and they are back out again. That is where we spent all this time thinking that the recruitment aspect was broken but actually you have the easiest part in terms of getting people through the process. 

You can do blind CVs, you can go out to different pools, but there has to be something attractive about the organisation in the first place. 

Candidates, regardless of skin colour, are saying where do you stand on climate change, on sustainability, on racism? They’re calling it out because what they are thinking is I’m different, I want to be in an environment that I know represents and fosters inclusivity – and values it.

Some of them have said to me that if I am going to an organisation that says they are doing something about racism to be honest, I am breathing a sigh of relief. I am talking to Chief People Officers who are leaving one business going to another and being asked at the interview stage – when the George Floyd protests happened, what were you leading as a business? 

In your opinion who is doing it well right now? Which company?

I couldn’t give you an answer and I will tell you why. I think everyone is so keen to make sure they look good and stand up to media scrutiny. There is a bit of a mismatch between public values and the experience of black colleagues and other underrepresented colleagues. 

Until we start to see a primary focus on what is going on under the car bonnet compared to how shiny the windows are – you have got to remember that there is a long way to go and we need to do more to support colleagues who are already in business and not just there for window dressing. 

So, nobody gets a gold star from me yet!

Shereen Daniels is Managing Director of HR rewired, a niche consultancy that partners with companies ready to take progressive action to combat racial inequality.

Their mission is to help public and private sector organisations transform cultures to embed equitable, anti-racist and kind practices – you can find out more about their work here.

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