The most recent statistics confirm an ongoing reality for British black and minority ethnic (BME) groups, which is that they are typically twice as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts. Indeed, while overall unemployment rates remained static between the January-March and April-June 2019 accounting periods, the rates for white unemployment improved marginally from 3.4 to 3.3 per cent. However, almost all minority ethnic groups experienced increases in unemployment, with the overall BME rate increasing from 6.9 to 7.5 per cent (ONS, August 2019). There is also evidence to suggest that the majority of those BMEs that succeed in finding employment are placed in unattractive jobs, with many encountering significant difficulties in climbing the corporate ladder.

Various factors have been put forward to account for the disparities in labour market outcomes. Some have suggested that these can be explained by a lack of human capital, in that BME groups are assumed to have lower educational attainment and training. However, this line of reasoning has been questioned by the increasing number of studies that demonstrate that levels of education and degree attainment are proportionally higher amongst BME groups. In this regard, studies of matched samples of white and BME groups continue to show the impact of what scholars refer to as ‘ethnic penalty’ on the labour market attainment of BME groups. Other explanations have looked at the impact of social capital, focusing especially on the capacity to develop and benefit from social connections in work organisations. Social capital is informal and unregulated; it is derived from inter-personal relationships, with such associations being commonly based on similarity attraction. Thus, social capital theorists argue that BME groups are disadvantaged because their difference on the most visible and salient marker of identity is such that they encounter significant difficulties in generating the type and quality of social networks that their white counterparts translate into benefits in work organisations.

In this article, I argue that previous explanations of the labour market position of BME groups overlook the intra-organisational dynamics that may give rise to inequality and disadvantage. Specifically, I contend that the dominant approaches through which culture is conceptualised in organisational settings and the ways in which it is implemented through culture management may encourage labour market inequality and disadvantage for BME groups. I draw from three complementary theoretical positions (social capital, culture capital and postcolonial understanding) to show how three intra-organisational interventions that are common in culture management (leadership, selective recruitment and internal promotion) can encourage and perpetuate the disadvantage of BME groups.

Typically defined as shared values, beliefs and assumptions that distinguish one group from another, the most important reason for cultural understanding in discrimination can be seen in the way in which organisational culture is derived from societal culture. That is, culture is a societal construct that organisational theorists have applied in explaining intra-organisational dynamics. However, while scholars and practitioners commonly present culture (and culture management) as neutral and benign, a closer look at societal culture provides insights into the ways in which it facilitates the ‘omissions’, ‘silencing’ and ‘othering’ that are not only inherent in ‘Western’ epistemology, but that also originate from the slave trade and colonial history (see Frenkel and Shenhav, 2006). Given that there is such a close association between organisational culture and societal culture, it follows that, without radical intervention, the racism and discrimination in the wider society will be mirrored in work organisations. Indeed, although it is commonly argued that overt discrimination has been replaced by covert, clandestine discrimination, recent empirical findings point to a continuation of insidious racism in society. Remarkably, the 2017 NatCen British Social Attitude Survey found that 26 per cent of a representative sample of the British public described themselves as “very” or “a little” prejudiced against people of other races. A different survey a few years earlier (European Social Survey, 2014) similarly reported that 18 per cent of UK respondents believed that “some races or ethnic groups are born less intelligent”, while a staggering 44 per cent believed that “some races or ethnic groups are born harder working”. When these findings are set against the backdrop of increasing populism and extremism in many Western societies (e.g. the Brexit debates), it is logical to assume that these attitudes will be carried into work organisations where they will have pernicious consequences for BMEs.

When it is translated into organisational settings, culture becomes a powerful tool with which to shape behaviours. Culture management is based on encouraging organisational members to share organisationally defined values, beliefs and assumptions in a way that increases behavioural predictability, while at the same time reducing the likelihood of undesired behaviours. These values are commonly determined by the majority in ways that exclude minorities. The underlying beliefs and assumptions that inform these values are also derived from the wider society and are more likely to be familiar to those with a common ancestry who may view them as customary and taken-for-granted. Culture management thus accentuates the differences between dominant and minority values and undermines the capacity of those who are different (especially on the salient demographic characteristic of race) to generate similar claims to organisational centrality and relevance. For example, organisations wishing to manage their cultures are generally advised to pay attention to the appointment of leaders as they are viewed as important culture carriers. However, the archetypes of leadership (traits, values, personalities) are often narrowly defined and commonly based on ‘Western’ conceptions that privilege ‘whiteness’ in ways that reduce the opportunities of BMEs to be appointed to leadership positions. The findings of Lord Parker’s 2016 review that less than 2 per cent of the directors in FTSE 100 organisations are UK national BMEs present a particularly powerful illustration of how many organisational cultures shape notions of good and effective leadership to exclude BMEs.

The management of the recruitment and selection process is also another important aspect of culture management that has contributed to the perpetuation of BME disadvantage. A major problem here is the assumption that shared values are critical to organisational success. Many organisations seeking to strengthen their cultures have interpreted this as the appointment of ‘like-minded people’, and the search for like-mindedness often leads to people recruiting those that share the characteristics of existing organisational members, a process that can become self-reinforcing. This approach disadvantages BME groups because, rather than making recruitment decisions solely on skills and abilities, it incorporates the more subjective and non-transparent factors that are linked to individual-organisation culture fit. This provides considerable discretion to decision-makers and the discrimination that often arises is sometimes labelled as ‘unconscious bias’.

Those BMEs who succeed in getting employment often find that their paths to career progression are blocked. This is especially so in contexts where ‘promotion from within’ is encouraged as part of achieving the desired culture. Internal promotion is not only influenced by individual skills and abilities but is also heavily influenced by mentoring and sponsorships. Several studies have argued that BMEs are not as successful as their white counterparts in securing mentoring and sponsorships as these are often linked to cultural and demographic similarity. Furthermore, conceptions of competence for the purposes of promotion are often based on ‘Western’ acculturation, which accords less importance to values that are commonly associated with BMEs (such as respect, obedience and collectivism).

Overall, the persistence of racial discrimination suggests the need for additional insights into this important and degrading aspect of the lives of BME employees. This article has argued that the dominant approaches through which culture is conceptualised and managed in organisations may encourage discrimination against BMEs. However, in these closing remarks, it is possible to propose that the potentially significant role of culture is such that it can also present the only meaningful tool for organisations to counter discrimination. However, this will require fundamental re-thinking of the way culture is conceptualised and implemented in organisations such that equality, diversity and especially inclusion become the strategic imperatives for intra-organisational cultural interventions.



Emmanuel Ogbonna is a professor in management and organisation at Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University. His research interests include culture in organisations, employee deviance, marketing and organisational behaviour interface and equality, diversity and inclusion.