Creating Psychological Safety Among Ethnic Minorities at Work: Interview with a People Scientist

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As the UK workforce is becoming more and more diverse, inclusion and belonging are climbing leaders’ priorities lists. So how can they make sure that people from all backgrounds feel at home and part of the team? We asked our very own People Scientist, Jesse Bhatti, for some expert insight…

Jesse joined Hive in 2021 after getting his Masters in Occupational Psychology. He focused his studies around his passion: advocating social justice and the experience of minority groups in the workplace.

How might people from minority backgrounds be feeling at work right now?

“It’s always been a bit harder for people from minority backgrounds to find a sense of belonging at work. And the social and political climate in recent years has not made that any easier.

High-profile incidents and the Black Lives Matter movement have shone a spotlight on the deep-rooted inequality in our society. This reality means that many people are living in pain and fear—something that is only worsened when they feel unable to be open and honest at work. And that lack of psychological safety invariably impacts their wellbeing and engagement.”

Why is it important to talk about this?

“A CIPD Race and Inclusion report found that 40% of ethnic minorities want to talk about race. Those conversations can often be difficult and emotionally charged, but by having them and by encouraging your employees to discuss these important subjects—even those who might not have been personally affected by them—you’ll empower others to speak up and build a culture of inclusivity and openness. 

On the other hand, if you don’t encourage people to talk about it, you risk them feeling like those conversations are out of bounds, and believing something that hugely impacts their lives isn’t appropriate in the workplace. The message that this sends out is a very powerful one: racial and social injustice isn’t important in this organisation and we’re going to turn a blind eye to it.”

How does that impact employee voice?

“It means that many people from minority backgrounds don’t always feel they can freely discuss the issues that are most relevant to them. To an extent, they feel censored.

But it goes further than that. Take career development, for example. In occupational psychology research, there’s a concept called differential progression, which states that ethnic minorities find it harder to reach senior levels. According to CIPD, only 6% of ethnic minorities make up those positions in the UK. This lack of representation in leadership roles means a lower proportion of people from minority backgrounds are involved in high-level decision-making and discussions—stifling ethnic minorities’ collective voice and minimising the diversity of thought available in those discussions. 

Representation is arguably a voice in itself; when employees know someone who shares their background and/or experiences is sitting at the top table, they are likely to feel like the concerns and priorities that they also share will be raised and addressed.”

“Giving every employee the freedom to speak up doesn’t necessarily mean all identities have an equal voice”

“Another way organisations often inadvertently promote this kind of indirect inequality when it comes to voice is through the use of terminology. For example, “BAME” (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) is seen by many as a politically correct term, but it puts the focus on Black and Asian people, and throws every other ethnic minority in together as a bit of an afterthought—minimising individual experiences. For people to feel like they truly have a voice at work, we need to avoid grouping their experiences together as one, so a better term to use is “ethnic minority”.

Ultimately, giving every employee the freedom to speak up doesn’t necessarily mean all identities have an equal voice.”

How can organisations build psychological safety and give employees from minority backgrounds more of a voice?

“Here are some things leaders can do to help create a safe space that reinforces psychological safety and allows individuals to feel comfortable to express their views, feelings and concerns about events of social justice without fear of judgement:

  • Always include the people who will be most affected by decisions in the decision-making process—particularly for D&I programmes and initiatives.
  • Make sure everyone has equal access to and awareness of progression opportunities—and beware of any bias in recruitment and progression processes. 
  • Encourage leaders to practise and role-model the behaviours that are key to inclusivity, like empathy, cultural intelligence, openness and actively listening. 
  • Take the opportunities to celebrate diversity in the workplace with internal comms campaigns around events like Black History Month, South-Asian Heritage Month, etc.
  • Support employees to understand and learn from each other’s intersectionality—the different demographics we’re part of and how those characteristics affect how we experience daily life. You could do this through activities designed to encourage conversations about different backgrounds, or by highlighting voluntary work that certain employees do in their communities.
  • And last but definitely not least—ask your people! Through a combination of surveys and frequent check-ins, try to find out what holds them back from feeling able to be completely open and honest at work.”

A huge Hive Five to Jesse for sharing his insights, passion and practical advice. If you’re wondering how #TeamHive and our team of People Scientists can help empower your people to speak up and support your ED&I strategy, just give us a shout.

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