Building a culture of belonging

What can businesses do to protect their ethnic minority employees in the future? Tolu Farinto says it’s about collaboration.

The pressure of Black Lives Matter sent a wave through businesses – suddenly they were all promising to do better. Email memos, black squares and internal reviews were all ways of ‘fighting the good fight’. But arguably, it’s now, when the noise of the protests is quieter, that the work really starts in driving long-term change for ethnic minority employees who are impacted by the insidious effects of racism.

There are barriers against ethnic minority employees that are rooted deeper than overt racism – it’s systemic and presents challenges every day. Now, as the return to the office looms closer, it’s time for leaders to take accountability, and more importantly, drive concrete action against cultures that have left ethnic minority workers marginalised in the workplace for far too long.

Build cultural intelligence across your organisation

The Harvard Business Review describes cultural intelligence as ‘an outsider’s seemingly natural ability to interpret someone’s unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures the way that person’s compatriots would.’ In a nutshell, it means reading the room, and it’s essential in helping every employee feel they belong.

Working collaboratively will help identify where the system is broken, and crucially, how it can be repaired

From the classroom to the office, ethnic minorities are excluded by dominant cultures that misunderstand them.

A black employee will likely have to work harder for their position, and will struggle to progress – a fact substantiated by Utopia’s own research, which found 41% of ethnic minority people feel this way. But because it isn’t overtly ugly in the way so many understand racism (that is it’s not forced on you like a drunk person screaming at people of colour on a packed train), it’s easier to ignore.

Organisations have an ethical responsibility to take time in recognising and learning about different cultures, and why it’s so easy to feel marginalised. By doing this, they can identify why the problem of exclusion is so prevalent and begin building authentic, vulnerable conversations that will inspire change.

To do this across the entire business, too – via workshops, training days, memos, suggested films, reading materials – is vital. Give everyone everything they need to understand the issue, then they have no excuse to be uninformed. 

Because without cultural intelligence, there’s a risk of giving people an excuse to hold onto their unconscious biases as an excuse. Celebrating diversity is great, but if leaders fail to build a culture that encourages inclusivity and difference, they’ll fail to retain those diverse workers through lack of inclusion. 

Be an ally to your employees – but avoid tokenism

Zero-tolerance policies don’t cut it anymore. It has to be coupled with real, sustainable allyship, that goes beyond a simple ‘I’m here for you’ and sparks uncomfortable conversations. Just think of the term ‘anti-racist’, and how it’s become so action-orientated, and as a result, divisive.


Despite the rhetoric against it, being an ally is being brave enough to offer an education on anti-racism; provide space and a platform for people who experience life differently, due to systemic racism; and never undermining the fundamental understanding that it’s no longer acceptable to be passive when we know racism is inherently part of the systems in which we live and work.

Another example is the pay gap: ethnic minority workers are earning 10% less than white workers. Those on the ground can lobby for change, but it’s the C-Suite who have the power to drive real influence. Because as it stands, just 1.5% of senior roles are held by black people.

There’s real value for businesses in consulting their ethnic minority employees on these issues –without burdening them. In co-creating bespoke programmes with consultation from minority employees, organisations can offer a platform to share workers’ lived experiences, and outline what they’d like to change going forward. Working collaboratively will help identify where the system is broken, and crucially, how it can be repaired. 

Take accountability and take action

Of course, the pandemic has left people preoccupied: childcare, job security and self-isolation have been priorities for nearly all of us. In all this, learning how to support ethnic minority employees can easily slip off the agenda. 

Rethinking the structures and biases that live on in every business, ranging from recruitment to promotions, are starting points in untying these deep-rooted inequities. For example, black students are feeling the burden of being graded on their predicted GCSE and A-Level results, so businesses should consider hiring processes that highlight additional skills.

Ultimately, it’s down to organisations to recognise the constant barriers that the ethnic minority community is up against, to create these shifts in internal politics and behaviour, from the boardroom to factory-floor. And to include ethnic minority people in the process, when putting plans and strategies in place, to achieve the nuance and insight required. 

Building a culture of belonging for all staff will only help businesses to thrive in the future. We all need to be willing to put in the hard work first.


About the author

Tolu Farinto is change-maker at culture change business Utopia.


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