Talent talks: What the Grenfell Tower tragedy can tell us about the state of corporate diversity and inclusion
When the Grenfell Tower tragedy occurred, I felt devastated.
That’s where I am from, that’s my community. I lived and grew up down the road from there. Some of the people who lived in the tower were my peers. We went to the same schools, dealt with the same issues growing up and lived the same lives of hopes, dreams and hardships.
However, I was knocked sideways, when the next day, I went into my corporate workplace and someone said ‘Surely they must have home insurance?’
There was a complete disconnect with the event among many of my colleagues, as though it was taking place in another country – not within a short distance from our office.
“Corporate workforces do not reflect the diverse groups who live here, particularly in terms of class background.’
I’ve been working in the corporate world for a few years now. In good businesses, with strong purpose statements and clear values, filled with good people. But comments like this – demonstrate the lack of awareness about what it is like to grow up poor – arise too often and make me, as someone who comes from a very low-income background, question what I am doing here, and if I belong. It made me really sad. I realised that I work with no one who understood social housing, or anything about the communities which surround our offices, let alone the consumers we were trying to reach and sell our products too.
“Comments like ‘surely they must have home insurance?’ demonstrate the lack of awareness about what it is like to grow up poor. They arise too often and make me, as someone who comes from a very low-income background, question what I am doing here, and if I belong.”
While I have only been working full-time for a few years, I have been around UK corporates for about ten years now through programmes run with Arrival Education. I have seen, over and over again, that in London, like many of the big UK cities, the corporate workforce does not reflect the diverse groups who live here, particularly in terms of class background.
Companies talk about the effort they make to incorporate diversity but they constantly overlook class and ethnicity. I think that is because they feel it’s too complex and too controversial to deal with. But diversity matters, and in London especially there should be more people like me, working in these top organisations.
Of course, people naturally tend to employ people they relate to; you build a rapport at an interview with people who like the same things you do and have similar experiences. But… when the directors and hiring managers are predominantly European and middle-class and the bulk of elite university graduates are European and middle-class, this becomes problematic.
When you survive poverty to make it into a top corporate job, you feel like you’ve won the lottery. I definitely felt like that. I felt like my years of hard work were finally producing the results I dreamt of.
But the journey to ‘making it’ doesn’t stop when you land the job. It’s not a smooth transition into the ‘white-collar’ world, because the culture is traditionally European and middle-class. So you feel obliged to conform. Perhaps, (and there are probably things I have forgotten to add to the list!) it is how you speak – your accent/ terminology/slang – your interests, your dress sense, your hairstyle, or your food preferences – that might have you stick out for the wrong reasons. You feel that if you want to get on you have to change and adjust, to try and fit in. I also think people make judgements about your potential, not on what you can actually deliver, but on how you speak. It can be hard to not ‘fit in’ every day.
“It’s not a smooth transition into the ‘white-collar’ world.. You feel obliged to conform.”
The actual work is fine; I always find that I can do what I asked quickly, and sometimes better than those on the lauded graduate schemes. I feel as though due to obstacles I’ve faced and overcome, most work challenges seems very achievable. But then I sit and wonder why nobody looks like me or talks like me! It’s frustrating as there are so many of my school friends and youth in my community, who could do jobs in this office and excel at them.
The ‘inner-city’ urban, working-class is filled with talent, with buying power, with artistry. My community is full of innovators in the UK music and media industries. We’re producing artists and creatives who see the world very differently and who are shaping a lot of popular culture. There is a pool of talent and intelligence, who think and act differently, who have different experiences. But they lack the opportunities to get through the door of our corporate companies, and even if they manage to get through the door, they feel pressure to conform to what is seen as ‘professional’. But in making us feel like we need to change to get ahead, do businesses lose some of that edge that is so necessary for great innovation?
Year on year the top graduate schemes are filled with the same people. Business leaders will say they want diversity; but they go to the same universities, use the same entry requirements and expect diversity to walk through the door. I say, change your approach. Advertise where the future leaders aren’t expected to be. Research the most diverse universities and advertise there. Build relationships with schools that are full of diversity.
To start life at a disadvantage and make it to a corporate interview already proves your determination, work ethic and intelligence. Getting top grades at a top-ranked school is good but getting top grades at a failing school is outstanding. And the most impressive talent, are those who have failed many exams but keep trying until they get success. They rarely get a considered for top early years’ roles.
I stick it out so one day I can be in the position of power to open doors for diverse talent and hire more young people like me, as I believe they are unstoppable. I want to hire those who have been through obstacles that most people couldn’t comprehend. This future talent could lead tomorrow’s businesses to greatness given a chance. They will innovate in ways that those who have come through conventional talent pipelines and pathways cannot even attempt.
So, does it really matter ‘how’ you speak… or does it matter ‘what’ you say?
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