Ahmed Essam, CEO, Vodafone UK, reflects on the work Vodafone has done so far to challenge racism in the workplace and transform the culture into one that is more supportive of the company’s black and ethnic minority colleagues.
This week saw the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis policeman – a sickening event that ignited a wave of protests throughout the world and highlighted once again the ugly truth that racism is still endemic in much of our society.
It led to a lot of soul searching and anguish. Many of us felt powerless, knowing that we should do more to rid our workplaces and communities of prejudice and bigotry, but not knowing exactly what we should do.
In Vodafone, we began by listening to our black and ethnic minority colleagues and simply acknowledging their hurt and anger. We established our REACH (Race, Ethnicity and Cultural Heritage) agenda, and through our Black Professionals Network and Multicultural Inclusion Network, started having conversations about race, privilege, discrimination – sometimes painful and awkward – but necessary.
We set up and ran ‘Let’s Talk About Race’ workshops for our teams – more than 40 delivered so far. And we trained 50 volunteers to facilitate these sessions, which focused on such topics as the language we use, our unconscious biases, and the hurt we can unwittingly cause.
We’re learning a lot from these conversations – education is key to this process – but one message is coming across loud and clear: silence is no longer an option. Being non-racist is not enough, we need to become anti-racist. This means speaking up when we encounter prejudice of any kind and intervening, not standing on the sidelines. It means supporting our colleagues and becoming allies – being active, not passive.
Our global Withstander Programme was born from this work – a training course on how to make our workplaces more inclusive. Because standing up against prejudice and inappropriate behaviour isn’t always easy – it takes courage – but also the skills and techniques to handle these kinds of situations.
We also launched a Reciprocal Mentoring programme, which paired up black and ethnic minority colleagues with Board members and senior leaders to share skills, knowledge and understanding. As the old saying goes, before you judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes! That is so true. We senior leaders need to educate ourselves, too – perhaps more than anyone else – which is why we’ve also piloted an Inclusive Leadership Programme, due to be rolled out soon.
As part of this learning process, we realised that we didn’t know enough about the ethnic characteristics of our people. It’s difficult to make good policy without good data to inform it. So we founded our #CountMeIn campaign across the Vodafone Group, in which we asked our colleagues to complete a Diversity Profile – voluntarily – declaring their ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and caring responsibilities.
We’ve had a great response so far, but need to encourage further participation. The more we know, the more inclusive we can become.
Now, I understand people are impatient for change, and some feel it isn’t coming fast enough. It’s an impatience I feel myself. So we’re accelerating our efforts and working with our Black Professionals Network to develop a Career Accelerator Programme, for example, and talking to our suppliers about extending our Race At Work Charter to them, too.
And once we’ve collected enough data from our Diversity Profiles, we’ll explore setting diversity targets based on hard evidence and track our performance against them. Senior leaders will be accountable for meeting those targets.
I want everyone to be in no doubt that our commitment to Inclusion for All is not window dressing, it’s fundamental to our purpose as a business. We want everyone to feel welcome and accepted for who they are. And we want our company to reflect the diversity of the customers we serve, at all levels of our business.
The shocking death of George Floyd, and the anger and protest that erupted as a result, unleashed a movement for change that now has unstoppable momentum. Visible benefits are already flowing from the work we’ve been doing.
There is much more to do, much more to come.