Canadian companies are making uneven progress on efforts to make workplaces more inclusive and equitable for Black workers, according to a survey from KPMG in Canada.

The survey, which polled 1,000 employed Canadians who identify as Black, found more than 80 per cent of respondents said employers are making improvements — but a similar proportion said they’ve experienced some form of racism or microaggression in the workplace in the past year.

“While there is the overarching perception that progress has been made, still the majority — 81 per cent — of people, are feeling racism, and that’s a very scary reality,” says Amanda Bartley, senior manager of management consulting at KPMG in Canada.

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The share of Black people experiencing some form of discrimination was up about 10 per cent from last year’s results, which suggests companies aren’t pushing below the surface enough to get to the heart of the issues, says Bartley, who is also co-chair of the firm’s Black Professionals Network. To get at the deeper issues, it’s important companies listen to Black employees. “Having safe spaces where people can share what they’re experiencing, without the potential risk of backlash and repercussions, is a great thing.”

Roughly two-thirds (68 per cent) of Black women said their employer had an allyship training program, compared with 81 per cent of Black men. Women also reported lower levels of being able to bring their genuine self to work or having allies at work who have spoken up for them. “It’s important to recognize that Black women continue to be one of the most marginalized groups in workplaces [and] in society,” says Bartley.

Companies need to work on creating environments where Black people can stay truer to their values and don’t feel the need to conform to prescribed mainstream standards of appearance or behaviour just to protect themselves, she adds. “It’s really pushing past the respectability politics, which is a conversation that continues to come up. It’s obviously come up more and more with the state of the world.”

The gender disparities among Black workers was also something that Rob Davis, KPMG’s chief inclusion, diversity and equity officer, raised as a key concern. “There is a very different experience in terms of Black men versus Black women, so that’s an area as Canadian businesses we need to continue to focus on.”

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However there are areas for optimism, says Davis, including the 76 per cent of respondents who said that compared with four years ago, their company now has a Black person in the C-suite or on their board of directors. “That to me is huge because until Canadian business sees that representation at the senior levels . . . it’s going to be tough to change.”

The third edition of the survey, conducted between mid-December and January, found there are also concerns that as the economy slows, some of the gains in inclusion could be lost. Roughly 80 per cent said they believe Black or racialized people were among the first to lose their jobs over the past year, and as many as nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) said their career progress didn’t materialize because the company was preparing for a slowdown.

It’s important to look beyond a last-in, first-out approach, says Davis, and for companies to look at everyone’s talent and consider some of their best might have been recently hired. To push toward more inclusion and equity, he says companies also need to look at the data and set targets. KPMG has set representation targets for women and people of colour in the partnership level of the firm and goals for positions below that level for Black and Indigenous people and those with disabilities. The firm has also tied partner compensation to the targets.

“For companies to really move the dial, set targets — not quotas. Quotas are a dirty word for me — put in place concrete actions to meet those targets and hold your senior leadership accountable.”

With so much going on, businesses and leaders can get distracted, but it’s important to keep working on these goals, says Davis. “We’ve got to make sure that everybody has the same opportunity to achieve success in Canadian business. As a Canadian society, I think it’s important for us to continue to focus on this, and it’s going to make us, [and] the economy, more vibrant and richer.”

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