Perspectives: Shereen Daniels, MD, HR rewired

Featured, Perspectives

Shereen Daniels is on a mission to tackle racial inequality in business. She's passionate about empowerment and through her work as MD at HR rewired, everything she does is about being an advocate for racial justice. A true inspiration, Shereen is committed to making a difference for Black employees on a global scale. Just how far have we come in tackling racism in the workplace? Who should be leading the anti-racism agenda? And why should we focus on equity and not equality? Shereen shares her thoughts.

Shereen Daniels is Vice Chair of the Black Business Association for London Chamber of Commerce and Founder and Managing Director of HR rewired.

Her corporate career spans over seventeen years, working within well-known UK brands with turnovers ranging from £100 million to £2.2 billion. Her HR national and international leadership experience was gained working with organisations such as Caffe Nero, Greene King, Hobbs, Gala Coral, Carphone Warehouse, Orion Publishing Group and ArmorGroup (now part of G4S).

Shereen has been featured in BBC Worklife, Forbes and is one of the UK's Top 20 LinkedIn Voices.

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Can you tell me a little bit about you and your background?

I always start by saying I'm a mother of two girls. I'm the Founder and Managing Director of HR rewired. My background has been in HR for almost 20 years, including the work I do now. I’ve worked for some well-known brands including Orion Publishing Group, Carphone Warehouse, Gala Coral, Hobbs, Greene King and Caffe Nero.

I also dipped my toe into politics last year, taking part in the Parliamentary Leadership Programme with the House of Commons, an accelerated programme for candidates with potential to be future MPs. I’m also very proud to be Vice Chair of the Black Business Association.

Everything that I do is about being an advocate for racial justice - whether it's through my business, the things I talk about as an individual, or through my work with the Black Business Association. I’m passionate about empowerment, particularly economic empowerment and thinking about employment opportunities, which is where my HR background and experience is really useful.

Can you tell me a bit more about HR rewired?

I guess I’d call us an employee empowerment company. Our focus is on helping organisations make real headway and move towards equitable, anti-racist and kind practices. We’re not a Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) business in its broadest sense yet everything we do is around helping organisations take meaningful steps to become anti-racist organisations. There, that's my elevator pitch!

What can businesses expect if they work with HR rewired?

At the very beginning I go in and talk to the leadership team. I give them some context about the Black experience and what that looks like in the workplace. One of the biggest challenges for businesses is trying to fix what they simply don’t understand.

It’s common for businesses to have spent a lot of money on D&I. Often the work hasn’t fixed this particular problem, because it was never made a real enough focus. We’ve almost stripped the Black out of BAME and ethnic minorities, and everything has become so broad brush that we never address and tackle the real issue.

What we’re seeing through the recent global unrest and what I call the rise of social consciousness, is that unless we make racial justice a priority, unless we take focused steps, we are never going to change things. From an organisational perspective, if you are a majority white business operating in global markets, and you’re not taking any deliberate action, it looks like you’re being deliberately racist.
I’ve had businesses come to me saying ‘we don’t want to appear racist, we want to support our Black colleagues, but we don’t understand their issues and we don't know where to start’ - and that’s where we come in.

Did you see an increase in the number of businesses approaching you following the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement?

Oh absolutely, yes. What’s really interesting is that I wasn't contacted by HR teams, it was Founders and Chief Execs. I’d say that was the case of around 80% of the clients we work with at the moment. It’s been their senior stakeholders who have been following me on LinkedIn, watching my videos and absorbing my message. They then get in touch to say they thought they understood the issues and knew what to do, but having listened to me, they realise that they don’t. They very quickly realise that there’s a difference when you’re very focused, and it highlights a lack of knowledge.

In my experience, there are very few people who are willing and comfortable to make Black people and racial justice a priority. The part of the puzzle people miss is that by prioritising Black people and their issues, it then feeds into your wider D&I strategy. If you have that insight and expertise you can start to make inroads which benefit your entire workforce. We’ve seen that without it, nothing changes.

Let’s highlight your video series. You’ve now got well over 100 videos on YouTube. What prompted you to start recording your videos?

I felt compelled to start recording my videos off the back of George Floyd’s death. It quickly became clear to me that here in the UK, we still felt as though racism was simply a problem in the US. There was a feeling that we didn’t have the same issues here and I wanted to address that.

What response did you get to your videos?

It’s been mixed. I’ve frequently had people commenting things like ‘Shereen, you clearly can’t have been a victim of racial injustice. You can’t have faced the same experiences. Look at what you’ve achieved’. People who have looked at where I am, the things I have done and the qualifications I’ve achieved and concluded that being Black has never impacted my career. I wanted to set the record straight.

Were you apprehensive about the impact the videos might have on you and your career?

Yes, there was definitely a part of me that worried that people wouldn’t want to work with me because of the videos I’d recorded. I didn’t want to be seen as ‘that Black woman’, talking about ‘Black stuff’, because we live in a society where we're deeply uncomfortable talking about the issues Black people face.

I got really emotional doing my first video. I was finally recognising that I had spent a lot of my corporate career trying to not to let people see my skin colour. In all the white spaces I’d been in, I would try and shed my Black identity. When I got into the foyer of these organisations I would hide my Black identity and I’d put it back on at the end of the working day, when I left to go home. I spent 17 years trying to hide my skin colour from a professional point of view.

Did you find it was more of an issue for you as you progressed through the ranks?

Absolutely. It was hard. I had people saying to me things like ‘opportunities don't come along for people who look like you’. The result was that I started adjusting my behaviour. I began operating from a scarcity model - there were fewer opportunities for me, so I had to accept and put up with a lot of things because I knew fewer opportunities would come my way.

I tell Exec Teams that they will have Black people in their business, who feel exactly the same way as I did, but they just haven’t come forward.

What do you think about the impact of Covid-19 on the Black community?

It‘s had a disproportionate effect on us, more of us are dying compared with other ethnicities. You’ve also got the knock-on effect of the contracting economy on the Black workforce. We know that we have a lot of Black people who are in frontline operational roles and lower ranks and we know that those positions are some of the first to be lost when businesses look to restructure or cut cost.

The result is that Black employees are likely to feel as though they can’t say how they feel or speak up if they’re unhappy about how they’re being treated in their organisation. They’re conscious that they don’t want to be seen to be playing the race card or to be troublemakers. 

I’ve seen evidence of HR people asking for advice from peers about what to do because they think that the George Floyd movement has caused the Black community to play the race card as a collective. There’s a trust issue. If you’re Black and your HR team has a white majority, who do you go with if you have an issue or a concern? For leaders who don’t see evidence of racial injustice in their business and take that to mean that the problem doesn’t exist, they’re wrong.

Can you tell me about the response your videos have had in the HR community and beyond?

It’s been mixed, both in the UK and the US. I receive plenty of messages saying that Black people are playing the victim card. I had a message from a Chief People Officer in response to one of my videos, asking me ‘at what point will you people just take responsibility for the fact that maybe you're not good enough?’ She commented publicly! I’ve had similar messages from CMOs and even AI engineers. It’s scary.

Let’s talk about a business who is really taking a lead in tackling racial inequality, Walmart.

I recorded a conversation with their Chief Global Culture Officer of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. I’d urge people to take a look because it’s a really interesting case study. Their approach is so different because they haven’t just made changes internally, they've gone into communities to affect change. Why? Because they recognise that systemic racism is a real issue.

Donald Fan, their Senior Director uses a really powerful analogy about fish and groundwater. For decades or even centuries, we’ve focused on the fish, the individuals. We’ve tried to give them skills, we’ve made use of positive discrimination, the Rooney Rule - all steps that imply that there is a deficiency with Black people. Now Donald and Walmart are focused on the toxins in the groundwater, systemic racism. If you only focus on the fish, you’ll never fix the cause of the toxins and the fish will always end up belly-up. It’s such a great analogy. When you have these sorts of conversations, you start to realise that traditional approaches to D&I will never tackle this issue, because we’ve always focused our efforts in the wrong areas.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face when you go into businesses?

I spend a lot of time breaking down the feeling that prioritising Black people is unfair. What is unfair is that people in the majority are in a position where they can directly impact action or a lack of action based on whether they think racism is a problem - that's the very definition of influence, power, and privilege.

Another big challenge is shifting the mindset of leaders from problem solvers to students. Throughout their careers, leaders have progressed by being able to solve problems. They've been the go-to person to decide how to navigate challenges and respond to changes in the market. They’re seen as having all the answers or at least facilitating the enablement of their people so that they can get the answers. But now they have to go back to school. Leaders need to be humble, show humility, and be comfortable that the topic of racial inequality is something that both I and their Black colleagues know more about than they do.

There needs to be a shift in mindset. It’s OK for leaders not to have the answers. Through the work we do, we create safe spaces to have brave conversations. The bravery comes when you're able to put your ego to one side and just listen with an open mind. It’s OK to say ‘I don't know’.

Racism is one of the most complex problems society has faced and we've been trying to solve it for the last 400 + years. You can’t approach it like a business initiative that will finish at the end of your next financial quarter, or at the end of your three-year plan. If it were that easy, we would have cracked it already.

Leaders must accept that it’s lifelong work, that the impact of what you do today you may not see the results of in your tenure within your organisation. You also need to understand that it’s now a societal issue, and if you’re not doing anything about it, it will be implied that you are a racist organisation by definition of inaction. I tell people that inaction is a message, so my job is very much to help businesses overcome the discomfort and turn it into meaningful action.

Do you think the change in leadership styles we’ve witnessed during Covid-19 will help address racism?

Absolutely. One of the things I talk about a lot is that we all have power as individuals. And as a leadership team, your job is to unlock people so that they can step into their power. Your team and the people in your business will help you make more progress than you could ever make, if anti-racism initiatives remain a purely a top-down initiative. In which case, you may wonder why I always start with speaking to leadership teams. It’s easy, your people are looking to you to see how seriously you are taking it as a leader. Everyone is looking for signals, your customers are looking for signals, your employees are looking for signals, your partners are looking for signals, and your suppliers are looking for signals about how seriously you are taking this.

Leaders can't do it all themselves, but they have to know how to unlock the will of the people that care within their organisation. There are people in every business who so desperately want to take action, they don’t want to be passive, they don’t want to see the burden put on their Black colleagues, and they definitely don’t want to sit tight.

People will move at their own pace. Not everybody will be laser focused on this and for some, it will take time. But I guarantee, you’ll be surprised by just how many people are waiting for permission to be part of the solution. Just imagine the power that could be unleashed within organisations.

I love business and while it’s often perceived as a societal issue, there’s a business case for tackling racism. If you take a stand, your products and services will improve, and you’ll have longevity as a business because the world is changing. As a leader, you should want to lead the charge because you'll attract progressive talent, progressive clients, progressive partners, and progressive investors. You’ll leave a positive mark on the world both as an individual but also as an organisation. Businesses have the opportunity to contribute to society’s solutions.

What are your thoughts on the businesses who chose to do nothing?

For those who continue to drag their feet, by the time they catch up with the rest of us, we’ll be long gone. And we’ll have taken market share. You can still take steps and make changes even if you don't have all the answers - people just want to see you try and do something. I genuinely believe that you will see the pay-off in a year's time. Those who have made changes will be glad they started to tackle the issue when they did, because those who chose to wait will have lost any credibility. They will be making changes, because they have to, and they won’t reap any of the rewards and benefits which come with being a progressive business. Experimentation and innovation, it's what we live for in the business world.

I think we're also moving towards people wanting to make a difference to society as well as being driven by profits. I think people want to buy into a mission and want to make a difference.

Let’s throw this out there. Is it right for HR to be leading the anti-racism agenda, given that it’s a predominantly white profession. What are your thoughts?

It's a really interesting point. I see HR leading the agenda from a mobilisation point of view and enabling from an execution point of view.

If business leaders make HR teams responsible for anti-racism, it’s a bit of a cop-out. It’s a way of saying that it’s not particularly important to the business, because if it were important, you as CEO or a member of the Exec team would be leading the charge. Now I’m not for a second suggesting that CEOs have to execute the day-to-day, but they have to put their stake in the ground. My favourite CEOs are the ones who don’t pretend to have all the answers, but they embark on a journey of change, bringing in the experts.

The other issue I see for HR teams if they lead the agenda is that they may have been part of the problem. I say to Chief People Officers the biggest mistake you can make is to fudge this, because you don't want to admit that you don't know how to approach the subject. You will do more damage if you get it wrong. That’s where it goes back to the humility, vulnerability and ego piece - there’s nothing wrong with going to your Board and saying, ‘I don't understand how to tackle this’.

I take some responsibility myself, as a Black senior HR professional. Knowing what I know now and how I show up in 2020, vs how I showed up when I was in the corporate world, I realise I too was part of the problem. On reflection, if Black employees came to me with a challenge, they likely had to work twice as hard to prove to me that it was an issue. Now that wasn’t because I didn't believe them, it was because I knew that if I brought it to the Board then there was a chance that they would think I was just siding with Black people. You get tangled up in this stuff and it can be tricky to get untangled.

How should businesses choose who to partner with to tackle the anti-racism agenda?

Due diligence is so important. Challenge businesses on how they’ve moved on since George Floyd’s death. I see a lot of consultancies who have just dusted off old models, having updated a word or two. Again, I would urge teams to do their homework and look at the DNA of the company. Be intentional, look for businesses who prioritise equity for Black employees. That’s when we get back into the groundwater stuff, look at your supply chain - how much, if any of it is Black owned? It’s interesting, but something I say a lot is that Black people are fundamentally in a situation that they didn’t create, and it doesn’t make sense to hire a white majority business to solve this. It can be quickly viewed as exploitative by your employees and clients, particularly if the companies you are using are doing very little in this space to affect change, beyond profits. We have to get intentional.

I’ve heard some horror stories of businesses who spent lots of money on D&I projects using consultancy companies who were just not equipped to deliver workshops and sessions on Black employees’ experiences. When their employees researched the company, it quickly became clear that the racial make-up of the company was white, and it caused people to feel uncomfortable and to boycott the sessions. There was no evidence that the company understood the issues that Black people face and there was a feeling amongst the white employees that they were uncomfortable working with the business. They were the ones who brought it up. It’s a real example of active allyship and it came at a cost to the business.

How far do you think we’ve come and how far do you think we still have to go, Shereen?

We've taken baby steps, but we have a long way to go. We have a long way to go because there are still organisations who feel like they don't have to do anything, those who think they can just put out an article or post a tweet. To make the next step we need to get into the groundwater. Decision-makers have to accept that they don't know all the answers and that’s OK, providing that they engage with the right individuals.

Let’s talk a bit about the shift from talking about equality to equity. Why was the change of approach needed?

We already know that we do not live in an equal society. Equality is an aspiration, it’s the destination, but to get there we have to practice equity. What equity says is that there are groups of individuals, maybe due to race, it could be due to gender, or even geolocation, but these people can’t even get to the start line. If we use a 100m race analogy, there are people who aren’t even able to compete and then there are others, already at the start line ready to run, who are blissfully unaware of their colleagues who haven’t even got to the ground yet. 

Focusing on equity is about putting practices in place to ensure that all athletes can get to the start line. When we’ve got everybody at the start line, we’ve reached equality. In order to get there, we’ve got to get comfortable in focusing on equity and prioritising Black employees.

What does the future hold for Shereen Daniels and HR rewired?

I want to do things with more of a global impact. I want to stay true to myself and my personality, and to prove that we don’t all need to follow the same scripted playbook. I want to demonstrate that we can be taken seriously if we don’t wear a suit. 

I never thought I'd be here, featured in Forbes, recognised by LinkedIn as an influential voice - I’m just a mum of two kids, recording videos from her basement office. I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to do what they love, to be employed and fully supported. At this moment in time, I am choosing to support my community. I'm choosing to fight for other people who look like me in a way that I never fought for myself.

Thanks Shereen! 

Click here to learn more about HR rewired or check out Shereen's YouTube videos here.

If you're interested in being interviewed as part of the BPS Perspectives series, I'd love to hear from you. You can get in touch with me at leanne.kelly@bps-world.com.

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