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KPMG surveyed just more than 1,000 employees who identify as Black Canadian to gauge how promises made by employers to address systemic barriers faced by Black employees actually translated into tangible change at the workplace for them.Reinhard Krause/Reuters

Canadian employers have made significant progress in understanding systemic racism and creating a more racially equitable work environment, but that cognizance has not necessarily translated into better job opportunities for Black Canadians, according to new research from KPMG Canada.

The consulting giant surveyed just more than 1,000 employees who identify as Black Canadian – of different income levels and across a broad swath of industries – to gauge how promises made by employers to address systemic barriers faced by Black employees actually translated into tangible change at the workplace for them.

The results were mixed.

Approximately 68 per cent of those surveyed said employers had made “good progress” or “some progress” on promises to be more “equitable and inclusive,” but about 50 per cent said they had not experienced better employment prospects.

In fact, approximately four in 10 said nothing much had changed, and one in 10 said things had actually become worse over the past 18 months, since numerous companies committed to tackling systemic barriers faced by Black Canadians in the workplace. Those commitments were spurred by conversations around race and racism in the corporate world in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in May, 2020.

“While over all, Black Canadians are facing less racism at work, it is still an ugly reality for many,” said Rob Davis, chief inclusion and diversity officer of KPMG in Canada, and chair of the company’s board of directors. He added that the survey results also showed many Black Canadians were concerned the improvement in attitudes and treatment toward racialized employees were driven less by fundamentally changing perceptions of them, but more because many people have been working virtually during the past 18 months.

“They are worried about what will happen when they return to the office,” he said.

Roughly 12 per cent of those polled called their company’s promises to be more inclusive “simply lip service,” while 20 per cent said their employers had taken no action at all on the diversity and inclusion front.

Just 35 per cent of Black Canadians said their prospects for advancement in the work force had improved because of a breaking down of systemic barriers, and 19 per cent feel they were offered a job they wouldn’t have a year-and-a-half ago.

Brooke Graham, a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant at Toronto-based consulting startup Diversio, said the results of the survey show Black representation in workplaces may be higher now, but that does not imply those Black employees have meaningful ways to expand and build their careers within an organization.

“It is telling that over 10 per cent of those surveyed say diversity efforts are lip service, and only 19 per cent say that they got a job they wouldn’t have before,” she said. “It seems that employers have been very focused on the hiring and recruitment pipeline of Black Canadians and less so on intangible factors like comfort level of minorities in a workplace where there is one dominant group.”

But Sonia Kang, a professor of organizational behaviour at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and the Canada Research Chair in Identity, Diversity and Inclusion, called the results of the survey “encouraging,” specifically because almost two-thirds of respondents said their work environment was more inclusive and equitable.

“Usually what happens when firms commit to diversity initiatives is that you’ll see good diversification at lower employee ranks and then it kind of just ends there,” she said. “I think organizations are becoming aware that you cannot just hire diverse people and walk away. You really got to work on the inclusion side of things.”

The survey also found while roughly three-quarters of respondents said they felt respected in the same way as their non-Black colleagues, a nearly equal number said they had to work harder than their non-Black colleagues to earn that same respect.

Additionally, a third of respondents said they have continued experiencing racism and microaggressions at work, while 14 per cent said those incidents have actually increased. A majority of Black Canadians surveyed said they would like senior leadership teams at their organizations to “walk the walk” and make anti-Black racism a bigger human-resources priority.

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