3 June, 2020

D&I for Leaders: Part 3 | Structural challenges to diversity and inclusion

This is an extract from Part 3 of Diversity & Inclusion for Leaders: Making a Difference with the Diversity Headhunter, the debut book by Raj Tulsiani. In this part we look at a range of cultural, political and historical reasons for why progress in diversity and inclusion has stalled. These are structural constraints that organisational leaders need to take into account when formulating their D&I strategies.


Institutional racism is an emotive term, perhaps because it is clinical, concise and all too applicable to some of our largest and most important organisations. It makes leaders bristle because they take it to mean that they personally condone and collude in racism. There’s a sense that organisations are infected with institutional racism, that it is a kind of dry rot hidden behind layers of paint and paper.

Well, the words may wound but the reality they describe is far worse. To work in an organisation that is institutionally racist is to confront routine, pernicious and orchestrated obstruction and devaluation. In such organisations racism distorts every aspect of the working experience, from interactions with managers to career development. The 1999 Macpherson Report on the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the murder of Stephen Lawrence concluded that the force was institutionally racist. It brought the concept to prominence in the UK and marked a new era of expectations for diversity aware leadership. The report defined institutional racism as:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.1

Macpherson made 70 recommendations, including an immediate investigation into other cases handled by the Met, new diversity performance metrics and the need to make police forces more representative of the communities they serve. Notably, Macpherson did not recommend any changes to the police’s stop and search powers beyond the requirement to keep better records.2

Reviewing progress a decade later, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee found that the recommendation to define racist incidents in terms of the victim’s perception (or any other person’s perception) had been universally adopted by police and other public bodies. Reported hate crimes had risen to around 60,000 per year, compared to 9,000 for the entire USA, while the hate crime detection rate had doubled to around 44 percent.

These encouraging numbers were not echoed in changes to representation within the workforce. Macpherson set a 7 percent target for BAME officers by 2009 but overall the rate in England and Wales had only risen from about 2 percent to 4.1 percent. Progression for minorities was still slow, with one explanation being the lengthy period it takes for officers to rise in the ranks. The police service only recruits at the bottom of the hierarchy and turnover is low, so it takes 25 years on average to reach the rank of assistant chief constable, the senior leadership level. Meanwhile the role of family liaison officer, introduced following Macpherson, was not completely trusted by black families. As for stop and search, while in 1999 a black person was six times more likely to targeted, by 2007 this had risen to seven times.3

The ten-year review offers several insights that can be applied more generally to the management and development of diversity and inclusion in organisations. First, defining harm from the point of view of the person harmed rather than a supposedly neutral authority can cause a rapid shift in workloads and priorities. The reporting of hate crimes rose but we don’t know if hate rose, fell or stayed the same. Although we do know that, as a society, we paid more attention to racist acts.

Second, recruitment, retention and promotion are not simple dials to move simultaneously. If an organisation’s structure is designed to operate at a glacial pace and there is only one entry point, flexibility will not magically appear just because a target is set.

Third, processes are easier to tackle than behaviours. If family liaison officers give the impression that they believe black victims of violence to be themselves involved in criminal activities, as Baroness Lawrence told the review committee, then they become an additional instrument of oppression. Diversity awareness training cannot hope to change these attitudes as long as the organisation continues to position itself as superior to its clients.

For all the argument about the phrase ‘institutional racism’, it is undeniable that an organisation’s default posture towards its stakeholders is a collective matter. What ‘we’ think about ‘them’ can, in many cases, form the bulk of an organisation’s self-image and thereby constrain and distort the behaviour of its members.

Macpherson is still very much with us. The ‘Twenty Years On’ inquiry was launched in December 2018.The inquiry will revisit the 70 recommendations and assess progress on diversity and inclusion in the police. That the principles laid down in the original report still need reinforcing says much about the difficult nature of organisational change. The idea that an organisation can be fundamentally flawed, together with the observation that its policies and practices enable and empower the flaws, are not topics that leaders are keen to dwell on if, indeed, they recognise them as topics worthy of their consideration. The wider social context conditions leaders’ thinking. Prior to Macpherson, the police – and many other public bodies – were actually exempt from race relations legislation. This surely signalled to leaders that racism was either irrelevant or impossible in their organisations.

The periodic return of Macpherson and its recommendations to the spotlight allows us to hear about the lived experiences of BAME officers such as:

Carol Howard, ‘poster girl’ for Scotland Yard’s Olympics security operation in 2012 [who] was ruled by a tribunal in 2014 to have been victimised because of her race. Being used as a ‘token’, Ms Howard told the tribunal hearing, even stretched to the irony of having to drive Doreen Lawrence from Brixton to Kensington ‘to demonstrate to [her] that the organisation had come a long way as here I stood as a successful black female officer’.5

How many similar experiences are inflicted on minorities in other organisations every day? Institutional racism’s turn towards irony suggests that it is mutating rather than dying. Just as worrying are the signs that other organisations have not absorbed the ‘Macpherson principle’ – that racism is a definitional matter for the victim. The row in the Labour Party about antisemitism is a case in point.6 The party’s hair-splitting about definitions of antisemitism demonstrated the subversion of the Macpherson principle in a dizzying display of irony piled up on irony. Post-Macpherson, listening to people is a precondition for the identification of racist behaviour.


Diversity and Inclusion for Leaders: Making a Difference with the Diversity Headhunter is now available to buy on Amazon. As one of the UK’s leading authorities in executive search, interim management, workforce planning and diversification, Raj Tulsiani presents a compelling case for the commercial value of diversity and inclusion that goes beyond the moral issues. 


  1. Home Office, The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, February 1999, para 6.34
  2. Unnamed author, ‘The Macpherson report: summary’, The Guardian, 24 February 1999; https://www.theguardian.com/uk/1999/feb/24/lawrence.ukcrime12
  3. House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, The Macpherson Report – Ten Years On, 14 July 2009; https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/ cmselect/cmhaff/427/427.pdf 47. House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, The Macpherson Report: Twenty Years On inquiry launched, 12 December 2018; https://www.parliament. uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/home-affairscommittee/news-parliament-2017/macpherson-launch-17-19/
  4. Adam Lusher, ‘Stephen Lawrence 25 years on: What happened and was this really a murder that changed a nation?’, The Independent, 16 April 2018; https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/stephen-lawrencemurder-25-years-changed-a-nation-police-institutional-racism-macphersonanniversary-a8307871.html
  5. Jessica Elgot, ‘Labour antisemitism code could breach Equality Act’, The Guardian, 16 July 2018; https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/jul/16/ labour-antisemitism-code-could-breach-equality-act
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