In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, KPMG’s insurance director breaks the ‘corporate wall of silence’
Our industry is one that readily talks about diversity and inclusion, and there are so many great examples of work being done by insurers that testify to this.
But, in this crisis, it's an unavoidable truth that a significant segment of the industry's employees and customers were heavily impacted and did not receive the support and attention they deserved. Acknowledging this, as many organisations have, is a great first step. But perhaps more importantly, the question now is where do we go from here?
For a lot of brands, making a public statement is problematic. I know that it's difficult to talk about the subject of race, especially when you're an organisation without diverse representation at a top level.
But avoidance of the subject, whilst understandable, only serves to make black employees feel like they aren't understood or that their problems aren't really appreciated. We've all read the McKinsey report detailing how diverse teams are better performing, and we see the value of this reflected in the propositions of insurers filled with diverse teams, so it's worrying to think that not only might a brand's silence alienate its current employees, it might drive away future talent and clients.
Even I can appreciate hesitation when it comes to communicating on this topic. It took me some time to gather my thoughts and find my own voice about recent events. I was filled with a sense of paralysis initially - I didn't want to speak outwardly for fear of damaging my personal relationships, but all I saw on social media was people telling me that my silence made me complicit.
The delay in my response was also because, in my experience, the racist comments and micro-aggressions I've been on the receiving end of over the course of my career (which don't feel micro when you're receiving them, trust me) whether said consciously or not, haven't been worth talking about. When I've tried, I've been met with racial gaslighting - ‘calm down, it was just a joke', ‘does everything have to be about race?', ‘I'm sure you just misunderstood'…
But there are moments that, whether I really took notice at the time or not, have painfully been repeating on me for the last few weeks and those memories propelled me into action.
When I was an adviser, and a potential client I met in the reception looked visibly shocked when he first saw me. He actually said to me: "you didn't sound black on the phone". I was at a black-tie awards event and, despite being dressed in a red evening gown, was mistaken for a server and asked, ‘can we get some drinks over here?' And this isn't just strangers - I've had someone I considered a friendly colleague once say that I was the ‘whitest black person' they knew… Which I actually think she meant as a compliment.
These things were all work-related events, and I said nothing for fear that the company I worked for wouldn't stand by me. When George Floyd died, it seems that black people were initially hit by a corporate wall of silence that left many of them wondering whether their companies would stand by them, many are still wondering.
But positively, many leaders - despite acknowledging that their organisations are drastically lacking in diverse representation on many levels - have stepped into an uncomfortable place and started listening. And, proudly, I'm including mine in a list of leaders that have demonstrated how fiercely determined they are to understand the challenges that face their employees and take action by allocating additional resources and investment, to give everyone a fair chance.
My advice for firms that are still paralysed, as I once was, trying to find their voice on an issue that they either don't understand or feel like they can improve, is to start with education. Having an appreciation of what it's like to be black or an ethnic minority is so important, especially at the top level of an organisation, and it only comes through listening to what your employees are telling you.
Then, take action:
- Set measurable targets and report on your ethnicity pay gap
- Review your recruitment processes - is there diverse representation in your hiring teams, at interviews?
- Mandate training across your business and ensure no-one feels that they don't understand the broader issues that impact their colleagues
- Create black leadership programmes that showcase your diverse talent
These actions are not mine, they are already being implemented by a selection of firms who are striving to create and live their best culture.
But understand, unconscious bias testing will not solve the problem.
The creation of a black or cultural ERG will not solve the problem.
Blind CVs will not solve the problem.
Diverse candidate shortlists will not solve the problem.
Effective leadership coupled with a combination of the actions listed will go a long way to creating and sustaining truly inclusive companies, companies which foster an environment of welcome and belonging, companies who will attract and retain the diverse talent they will need to be truly successful and sustainable.
Rose St Louis is insurance director for KPMG