With recent events both in the UK and globally that have highlighted serious issues relating to racial equality for all levels of society, LSB was delighted to be able to speak to Hashi Mohamed about some of the things that institutions can consciously do in order to move towards a more inclusive society.
Hashi is able to use his experience of arriving in the UK at the age of 9, speaking only basic English, attending failing schools and being raised exclusively on state benefits in a deprived area of London through to becoming a published author who attended Oxford University for his postgraduate degree and Bar School on a full scholarship in order to shine a light on what it is like to traverse the cultural landscape of institutions in modern Britain.
From this, Hashi can draw powerful conclusions for businesses and enterprises, the public sector and government – about devising better policy, resilience, focus and the ability to adapt in the pursuit of success. The lessons to be drawn are multifaceted and relevant to many people and industries.
Hashi’s debut book on social mobility in Britain, People Like Us, was published in January 2020 and is out on general release.
Roy Sheppard is a conference moderator and a former BBC news anchor.
From your perspective how would you summarise what has taken place over the last few weeks over the Black Lives Matter Movement, and what, if anything, has changed this time?
I think the death of George Floyd was a real catalyst all around the world, but in particular for the Black Lives Matter Movement because for the first time it confronted everyone in society with a grave injustice that was being experienced by so many black people all over the world.
This was not something that just happened overnight and for those of us who are asked to realise black lives matter, we have news for you, for a lot of black people, and everyone around the world, black lives always mattered.It is just that people are now catching up and I think it does feel different this time. It feels different this time because of the way in which law enforcements have been reacting in terms of the fact that these police officers are being held to account. It feels different because it ignited a worldwide protest. It feels different because corporations and organisations are finally starting to think about how they need to change their own internal processes to take out of this issue.It feels different for a whole host of reasons, and all of that came about, sadly, because it took the video of this police officer putting his knee on the neck of George Floyd and snuffing the life out of him for us to be having this conversation.The real lesson for us is trying to understand how we can learn, and to what extent this lesson is going to be more long term than this fleeting moment.
Tackling the issue of racial inequality may seem like an enormous task for a company or a corporation, especially a large one. When you get into companies to advise them about diversity – can you speak a little bit about the things you think firms are aware of but also some of the issues that may be less obvious?
There are a lot of organisations – big organisations, small institutions, governments and businesses – who are finally taking this issue very very seriously, and they have finally awoken to this idea that there is this huge injustice out there in the world. We are very grateful for that.The question now is how do you implement long lasting change? As an example of that it is not just simply a case of saying – “Well we have equal opportunities for anyone, no matter who they are, no matter where they come from, no matter what their skin colour”. That is simply not enough. The notion that somehow anybody who walks through your door and comes to that interview table, has sent you a CV and a covering letter, applying for a job, actually has an equal chance the moment they walk into your office, is simply not true.
That is because whoever is walking into your office is having to deal with societal attitudes. Societal attitudes that might be prejudicial to black people, towards women, towards disabled people. The notion that everyone who walks into your office is entering a neutral environment in which they are going to be judged based on their qualifications, is not true. We judge people on what kind of school they went to, what kind of university they went to, what kind of language they use, what kind of accent they speak with, what kind of connections they have. How they carry themselves, the mannerisms with which they communicate, and much more.
The reality is if this exists in society, which is particularly bad towards certain people, like we are talking about more and more now like with the Black Lives Matter movement, it is not enough for businesses to just say we are an equal opportunities employer and we only take people at their merits because we know that is not the only thing that you are being judged against.
Your book – People Like Us – when you talk to people like you, what are the recurring frustrations that you have heard in the past, and have you detected a change in the way that people are talking about the issues now?
I detected a big change in the way people are more aware of the issues that I have discussed in my book. Incidentally, the sentence that starts with People Like Us is a wordplay. On the one hand it is the snobbery of people who think that they only mix with people like them.
The quintessential majority of English PLU or the restrictive way you might say to your children – “people like us don’t do that, people like us don’t mix with people like them”. It is a wordplay of sorts when I talk about it in the book, but actually in the end, I think that this moment really is signified by the fact that people are really taking these issues quite seriously.
Where I think there is a gap is that people don’t know how to makes the next steps, people are unsure about the way in which they can potentially change things in their organisation. They don’t know how they can change their working practises; they don’t know how best to tackle issues of race; they don’t understand how to have those difficult conversations. They don’t necessarily have the tools to do an audit within their company which allows them to understand why their recruitment processes have always ended up recruiting people just like them. They may have recruited people who are diverse at the lower end of their structure, but they have a problem with retention and progression. What is it about that the fact that you are having a massive turnover that doesn’t help your trajectory?
For me, now, it is very positive to acknowledge that everybody seems to be awake to this issue. How do we then move this forward, how do we address it, how do we implement the kind of decisions and structures that allow us to make progress.
What sort of question do senior executives and HR professionals tend to ask you when you are having a conversation with them?
Senior executives and HR professionals are often keen to ask what more can they do, what more can they change, how do they recruit more diversely? The first thing they need to understand and is critical is that you need to be in this for the long term. It isn’t just enough to say – “The BLM Movement is here now; we must release a statement. We must find a way of going on a website and saying we are open; we don’t tolerate racism”. That is not enough, you must be in for the long haul. That means leadership, right at the top, not just leaving it to the HR department. It means the resources that are required to go out into the world and find those people who may not necessarily come to you straight away.
It means giving the resources to the HR department, to have people who are working in that department for more than a couple of years. To have a structure and a strategy that can be implemented in the next five years.
It means that you need to invest in your communities, don’t just wait for those CV’s to come in, go to the schools, go to the primary schools and say to the children – “We are a company that employs x amount of people every year and we are just around the corner from you, we would love for you to join us one day in the future, when you go to university, or wherever it is you end up in trying to better your own lives”
This is the big challenge, being in for the long haul, leadership right from the top, and any strategy that you put forward is backed up with stamina and resources.
There are so many challenges facing organisations and businesses right now because of the pandemic, how do you move diversity up the ever longer list of priorities that are facing people in boardrooms and amongst HR people?
At the end of the day everyone is fighting for attention, everyone is fighting for oxygen to get their issue up the agenda. The issue of diversity, inclusion, equality and ensuring that everyone has a fair shake in the pie, to my mind, is one of the top two or three priorities in life. If you do not give people a fair shake in life, if you don’t give people a chance to be able to be able to better themselves and to pursue whatever fulfilling future they want for themselves, based on their talents, hard work and merits, rather than the circumstances in which they are born, the contacts that they have, the kind of arbitrary things that decide you are not going to go far, or you are not going to go ahead into what you want to be. For me that builds a society that is resentful, that is divided, where so much talent ends up falling through the cracks.
I would say to all organisations, companies and businesses – the issue on diversity and inclusion, and the issue of ensuring that you recruit more representatively in your communities and in your companies must be your top priority.
I will play devil’s advocate now – the purpose of a commercial organisation is to create return on investment for stakeholders and shareholders. This is not the role of an organisation necessarily; it would be the role perhaps for a government. What would you say is the business case for an organisation to be more inclusive?
If you do not think being more inclusive in the society in which you function is something that is affecting your bottom line or your dividend return, then you are sadly mistaken and are a corporation or organisation that will not last very long.
Is not that the problem – business is very short term – but to create a sustainable society, as you have said, is for the long haul. There is a big gap between the two, how do you bring them closer together?
Businesses cannot be for the short term, they cannot be for the next round of dividends that are being handed out, businesses cannot work on cycles of the next financial year. Governments are short term. If you are having a government switch hands every five years, then arguably there are businesses that have more long-term strategies than governments.
The reality is that there is both a business case and a moral case for the diversity and inclusion agenda. If you are a company that is recruiting many people every year and somehow you end up just recruiting from a tiny minority of people without reaching out to as many people and as widely as possible, you do not deserve to be functioning in that society. Businesses do not work in a vacuum, they don’t exist in a vacuum, institutions don’t exist in a vacuum. When you leave your business every day and you walk down that street, the taxes that you pay are for the police officers; they pave the streets that you are walking on, the peace that you enjoy with no bombs dropping on your head.
The idea that somehow you as a business can simply focus on your returns and ignore society around you both in terms of who you recruit, who you retain and crucially for your own purposes of being in a cognitively diverse environment – not just racial diversity but cognitive diversity which means that you are going to become a narrow-minded company, it means you are going to become a stale company. You are going to become outdated and out of business.
When you are talking to executives, what are the questions they tend to ask you time and time again?
The executives that I tend to speak to are struggling to find answers, they are struggling to find solutions and often find it difficult to have those difficult conversations because, through no fault of their own, are stuck sometimes in a warped idea of how society should be working. They would say things like – “we don’t judge people based on their race or colour, we judge them on their CVs or their qualifications. What is the problem?”
Are they being defensive? I am assuming the people talking to you like that are white and older because they have positions of power in business.
Not necessarily, I think there are people stuck in a warped idea of what a meritocratic society looks like. They are just a group of people who have had a traditional outlook on the way the world works and have always thought that if you work hard and do the right thing you will succeed. If you haven’t succeeded it means you are being lazy or you are not pushing yourself hard enough, you are waiting for a handout or you are undeserving.There are a lot of people who see the world from a narrow view, rather than appreciating the world around them in a way that would be more helpful to all of us, and society as a whole.
As we have Black Lives Matter and the pandemic, I believe we have a small window of opportunity to really push through this agenda, in a way we tell people you have to do something different. Something that you do cannot be for the short term. It must be for the long term.
Give us an idea of the types of things companies that you are talking to are embracing, are they changing processes in order to achieve what it is you are so passionate about.
One of the first ones is that you create an environment within your organisation where these difficult conversations are being had. The difficult conversations about the fact that we are not all going into a neutral society. A white middle-aged guy named Robert Smith is not going into the same world as a black guy with a Muslim name called Hashi Mohamed. As a starting point it is really important to acknowledge that from the starting point, we are not going out there into a neutral environment within your organisation.
If you could have that conversation without getting peoples’ backs up, not everyone is responsible for the privilege they enjoy. If your parents worked hard to give you the best possible life, you shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about the fact you are now enjoying the fruits of that labour.
Secondly if you are going to recruit, and you are going to be serious about recruiting, and you are saying you want a diverse workforce, you need to start investing in your local community. Get involved in local schools, local charities. Start creating that pipeline that allows for a lot of young people who might end up in your organisation.
Think of how you recruit. Your interviewing techniques, the names on the CVs, how you recruit to be sure that people are more aware of their prejudices and unconscious bias. When new people get into your organisation you need to have a monitoring mechanism that keeps an eye on why is it that if you are a white working class kid or a kid from a state school – within 5-6 years in that company somehow you are earning less than the guy who went to a private school when there is no discernible difference between your qualifications, your university degree and so on. Yet one is earning more. How do you monitor that?
There is plenty to do, but you must have the resources to do it with, and you have to wait to see the results. Not tomorrow, not next year, but for a long period.
You talked about us all having biases, whether conscious or subconscious. What can we all do to become more self-aware and be more open minded, and receptive to these changes that are happening in society, so that more people become the change that we are talking about?
What we can do is initially educate ourselves – about our history, the world view you are accustomed to, about how you think about the way things work. Then you must be ready to accept that everything you have understood about the way the world works could actually be wrong and go back to basic principles. That is a real big step for a lot of people, and that includes acknowledging your own particular privileges. I may not have had many privileges growing up, but I am privileged in that I am an able-bodied human being who is able to pursue my dreams. I have had all the advantages of scholarships and I am fully aware that I am enjoying my own privilege however deprived I had been growing up.For me, the biggest fundamental change that we, as a society, can do together is to just sit down and pause to think about how much privilege you have had in your own life. How you might then be able to understand your world view based on that upbringing. Based on that world view, based on the advantages that you had. Then finding a way in which you can transmit that into the society in which you live, without necessarily feeling guilty about it, but with a real sense of purpose and duty to the society in which you live and for making a difference for everyone regardless of the advantages and disadvantages they had growing up.
What occurs to me listening to you is how passionate and enthusiastic you are. Aren’t you angry, or have you been through that phase because there are quite a lot of people who are advocates?
Why are you expecting me to be angry?
I was not expecting you to be angry, but I have seen so many activists in the past who have become so frustrated that it does become anger. That, to me, seems to be a fundamental shift. In the demonstrations there is anger, there is violence, but when people have intelligent conversations about making the world a better place, making it more inclusive, there is no anger. I am curious to know what phase it is you have been, to where you are now. How do you think that has helped you to have meaningful conversations with people who have power still, that you want them to open their minds to do things differently in the future?
Anyone who has any semblance of justice and injustice in their hearts and in their minds will be very angry about the way in which our world is constituted. Anyone, regardless of whether you are black or white, if you are fully and fulsomely engaged in the society which you live in would be angry about the injustice of growing up in child poverty, in some of the most deprived communities, underfunded schools, and poor sets of circumstances that we have in our society. All the police brutality that we see, and the cuts that have led to all sorts of problems around the world.Everyone who has any idea about that would be angry. The question then becomes – how do you react to that anger? There is no point in dwelling on whether or not somebody is angry about the circumstances in which they live. What is more important is how you transform the society in which we live and accept this is only one world in which we all have to share, in which we all have to find a way of getting along and in which we all have to challenge one another in terms of why things are the way that they are. How we move things forward to where they ought to be. That is where I am interested in conversations.
If you are a CEO or an HR executive, you are somebody who is wielding enormous and awesome power. What you need to ask yourselves is why are you not angry about the way the world is, and what are you going to do about trying to help somebody who has the capacity, who has the capabilities and determination but is being held back by reasons way beyond their control. Reasons that exist in other peoples minds rather than their own.
Anger is a good thing because it means it drives you with a passion, it means you are engaged in that society. It means that you are aghast at the injustice. The question is not “why are you not angry?” the question is what are you going to do about what is going on in the world around you? That is the real fundamental question for this generation, in this moment.
My guess is only the open minded would invite you into a company to advise on these sorts of issues. What do you see that senior executives simply fail to understand about the situation?
If you are not open minded enough to be engaged in the points I gave to you, the reality is that your time is limited because I think we are living in a time where anybody who doesn’t even acknowledge the basic starting points of what I am talking about is completely out of touch with the world.In that respect, the question of open mindedness doesn’t really apply because if you are a senior executive and sitting on top of the food chain, you have the cognitive abilities and wherewithal that the status quo isn’t good enough. If you don’t accept that basic premise, then I don’t see any point in engaging with you and I probably think your time is going to be quite limited.
For the vast majority of executives who are open minded, who understand the status quo, now is the time to seize the opportunity. Not because it is the fashionable thing to do, but because your business depends on it.
It is the morally right thing to do.
What we are talking about is creating a shift in the corporate mindset. Does that have to cost anything other than time and energy?
It costs time and it costs patience, it costs the mindset that says we may not get there next week, next month, next year or even in five years’ time. We will get there. It does cost resources, but it also costs a great deal of patience.
What excites you the most about the direction this is heading?
What excites me also makes me very nervous. What excites me is the fact that everyone seems to have awoken to the issue that is at hand here. We are in a situation now where everybody is saying they should do something, whether it is every corporate organisation donating money, to organisations doing something, to the premier league taking a knee before every game. In a really perverse way – and what makes me nervous – is because it is so prevalent now, I fear that it may mean that people are going to now think the problem is done, it is obvious the solutions are there.What excites me is we are all talking about it. Great. What do we do now? What makes me fearful is because we are all talking about it, we are going to get complacent. That is the double-edged sword of this moment.
I want to ask you a hypothetical question. Would you transport yourself to the end of your career for a moment? What would you have liked to have achieved for society?
I hope that by the end of my career I will have been an example for a lot of people to follow and to replicate, and I hope I live to see that and to live up to that example.
Hashi thanks very much for joining us.
Thanks very much for having me Roy.