Kwasi Amoako - Customer Engineer at Microsoft
As I neared the end of my university journey, I was starry-eyed and excited, impatient to join the real world. I wanted to meet new people and tackle fresh challenges. I couldn’t have been more enthusiastic.
Sadly, though, I was about to be disappointed. It wasn’t long into my first graduate job, contracting at a leading investment bank, that I felt my energy for the working world start to fade. In fact, by as early as lunchtime on my first day I had already been asked “Do you like rap music?” and “Are you one of those diversity scheme candidates? Is that how you got this job?” several times. The answer to both questions, to some degree, was yes: I do love rap music and as a student, I had indeed participated in (and enjoyed) a number of diversity initiatives, including those organised by SEO London – an organisation which introduces opportunity and parity to students like me from disadvantaged backgrounds wanting to enter the corporate world.
Of 1,003 BME employees polled in a UK survey on racism in the workplace, more than a third (37%) said they had been bullied, abused or had experienced racial discrimination by their employer.
Source: Is Racism Real?, 2017 Trades Union Congress Report
But I was also highly aware that the answers to these questions shouldn’t be the determinants of my professional profile, nor should they have any bearing on how my competency is perceived, particularly as evidence shows that such microaggressions stem from, and can quickly devolve into, something much more damaging. Other incidents followed and collectively they were starting to wear me down. The working world wasn’t meeting my expectations.
Some time on I was tasked with my first client lunch. The meeting had been positive and I was keen to discuss it with my Executive Director. I wanted him to know that I was capable of building client relationships and ready to take this next step. Later that same day, as he approached my desk I took a deep breath, eager to share by progress report. We spoke briefly about how well the lunch had gone and I could see that this news excited my manager. “My n****r” he replied with a smile, in what appeared to be his messed-up attempt at acknowledging my success. My heart sank. I couldn’t believe what I had heard and for me, this was the final straw.
I escalated my experiences to a seemingly very defensive human resources department and after a month and a half of investigations and meetings, I left the company, and with it, my friends, network and a year’s worth of work experience. I had spent many long days and frequent nights working for this company, but though it saddened me to leave, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to work in such a toxic culture.
My mental wellbeing suffered during this time, as did many of my personal relationships. These are sadly lived experiences that I expect to carry with me throughout the remaining 40-odd years of my working life. Yet, I was determined not to let the past define me and so, as I started looking for my next role, I focused on finding an employer who would treat me equally and fairly and tackle discrimination head-on. I wasn’t willing to settle for anything less.
Joining the team at Microsoft was a significant shift for me. I had moved into a completely different industry, but also one with a positive culture in which I could thrive. Despite this, my feelings around my previous employer resurfaced following the death of George Floyd in May 2020 and it became clear that my experiences paralleled those of many others who looked like me.
Microsoft’s act of listening provided a great start. But the steps the company took next would be the real drivers of cultural change. Microsoft UK announced that it was committing to numerous actionable and measurable responses to racial injustice.
However, the big difference between that situation and my new position was my new employer’s willingness to engage with employees around the issue of racism. Microsoft’s act of listening provided a great start. But the steps the company took next would be the real drivers of cultural change. Collaborating closely with the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) leadership team and employees, Microsoft UK announced that it was committing to numerous actionable and measurable responses to racial injustice. These included (but were not limited to):
Expanding Microsoft’s internal charitable matching campaign to include UK charities suggested by employees focussed on tackling racial injustice;
Committing to and becoming a member of Change the Race Ratio – a campaign initiated by the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) focussed on increasing racial and ethnic participation at board and senior leadership levels in British businesses; and
Increasing ethnic representation at both the earlytages and at senior levels.
I’m proud that Microsoft are a founder member of Change the Race Ratio, an initiative launched by The CBI last year...By signing up and taking practical action in their own company, Microsoft are helping accelerate much-needed change across British business.
Lord Karan Bilimoria, President of the CBI
Microsoft’s flat structure and encouraging environment even gave me enough confidence to contribute some of my own ideas for tackling racial injustice in the workplace, despite being just a few months into my journey with the company. These included:
Setting up reverse mentoring with a diversity focussed lens to provide ethnic minority employees with an interface to senior leadership;
Providing diverse employees with exposure and guidance that could help with employee retention and career progression; and
Creating learning opportunities for leaders who may genuinely not be aware of the experiences of BAME employees.
I’ve presented these suggestions to Microsoft and am currently actively pursuing them. While discussions are still ongoing, I am very hopeful that the scale is beginning, at last, to tip in the right direction for change.