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Mind Your Language

Robust and granular ethnicity measurements create an excellent starting point to understand employee compositions and gaps against aspirations. “What gets measured gets done” may be a true adage in most cases, but for ethnicity a necessary additional criterion for genuine action is the appropriate and confident use of language.

Many senior leaders believe that they don’t have the right language to speak with confidence about race. This can lead to diminishing the quality of dialogue on the subject in boardrooms and senior management teams, replete with “no-go” areas.

This also applies to candidates. Many ethnically diverse executives are not comfortable talking about their own ethnicity in a work or interview setting, creating all kinds of missed opportunities. We have lost count of situations where ethnicity was a big part of the search process, but where both the client and the candidate felt too uncomfortable talking about the subject in an interview setting, creating a strange situation where people were “thinking” ethnicity, but no one was “speaking” it.

Greater comfort with the language of ethnicity is needed and turns out to be far simpler and less risky than some may think.

The discomfort lies at both the macro “how do I even begin to speak about it” level, and the micro “how do I/can I get specific” level. At the macro level, ethnic diversity, racial diversity, people of color, non-white, BAME (Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic), and BME (Black & Minority Ethnic) are all fairly common and acceptable terms in the UK. However, UK official use guidance suggests that the term “ethnic diversity” and logical derivations such as ethnicity, ethnic minority, ethnic group, etc. are most appropriate. The other terms are not wrong per se, but they are seen by some constituencies to be inaccurate, inappropriate, not comprehensive, or generally not in good taste.

Moving on to the “micro” point, UK official statistics itself categorize 18 different ethnicities, leaving plenty of room for specificity, without causing any discomfort to either the initiator or recipient of a conversation or question.

Some simple “top tips,” and “process priming” are all helpful to avoid causing offense and to help break the ice. For example, one tip is that the usage of any official ethnic term in the singular, for example Indian/Arab /African is usually OK, but using the same term in its plural is not.

“Process priming” is also worth exploring. Some clients are requesting that their HR teams and search partners take a process approach to achieve the desired outcome, in some cases formally asking candidates to fill out data consent forms with a diversity section so they know what a candidate is comfortable discussing.

Clearly, the menu of choices employers and candidates will make on this subject depends on the comfort level of each individual and the culture of the organization. However, the aspired direction should be clear—learning the “language” of ethnicity must go hand-in-hand with measurement.

Terms to Expunge From Your Growing Anti-Bias Vocabulary

Certain terms or catchphrases can take on unpleasant dimensions, even if used in the interest of making a progressive point. It is impossible to be exhaustive about the litany of poor or offensive (or both) terminology choices, but we choose to highlight two phrases to make the point and encourage introspection.

A term increasingly creeping into the lexicon is “double diversity,” and we sincerely hope that it dies a rapid death. Used to signify that a particular individual ticks not just one but two diversity “boxes” (typically gender, ethnicity, or sexual
orientation), we would posit that this is missing the point on the D&I agenda. Implying that having two diversity characteristics offers “double” the benefit of having one diversity characteristic (e.g., a female, Indian CFO would be considered “doubly diverse” while a White, female CFO would be termed “diverse”) could risk dehumanizing a discussion, and though statistically relevant, needs to face up to legitimate criticisms of box ticking.

Another that is even more commonly used, is “Pale, Male, and Stale” or “Old White Men” as a mildly derogatory term, often in the context of wanting to make a progressive point. However, the terms could be construed as racist, sexist and ageist by many, and though we appreciate that “punching upward” against dominant social groups is acceptable in some lines of work (e.g., stand-up comedy and politics), we are uncomfortable with such language meriting a prominent place in a D&I dialogue. It can breed silent resentment at a minimum, and serial users of such terms may need to introspect on what they are trying to achieve, and whether it suits a progressive D&I narrative.

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