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BHM2020: Graeme McLean, Group Head of Employment Tax and Mobility at Sage

Sarah Reid Market Insight, Career Advice

This Black History Month, Brewer Morris is delighted to interview a number of Black tax and treasury professionals to recognise and celebrate their careers and achievements. We’ve invited our Black clients and candidates to speak to us about their career journeys, the challenges they’ve faced in the workplace and their views on what needs to be done to promote racial equality and inclusion within the industry. 

We kick off this interview series with Graeme McLean, Group Head of Employment Tax and Mobility at Sage.

Tell us about your career path to date. 

Very interesting question and one I hope to look back on with pride when my career is all said and done. Before starting my career in tax, I wanted to work in the media industry, specifically music (DJing), as this was something that captured the youth of my generation, however, this was not a vision shared by my parents. I was in Magaluf with a friend during the summer holidays of 98, and I returned home to find an application for the Inland Revenue waiting for me. This was the handy work of my mum, who was determined for me to work in a field she deemed suitable for her son. Despite my apprehension, I completed the application and I submitted it. I attended the interviews, and at the end of it all, and I was offered a job as a Trainee Tax Officer in late 1998 – let me say it now, I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was the best move of my career and one where my career was born!  

Whilst working at HMRC, I studied for a degree in Accounting at Greenwich University in the evenings; in my final year of studies, my manager advised me to seek opportunities in practice as opportunities to progress within HMRC were limited. I applied for a number of roles with large accountancy firms but I was unsuccessful in securing an interview. Not to be deterred, I applied to local firms and secured a role with a high street accountancy firm in Woolwich, South London.  

Since commencing my career in tax, I have worked in the three cornerstones; government with HMRC, in practice with two Big 4 firms, and now in-house for Sage Group Plc en-route via a fixed-term engagement with a FTSE 100 employer. All of my opportunities have been a blessing. Although I may not have recognised it at the time, what is indisputable is that each of my roles has taught me different facets of working whilst pushing me to my limits.

What do you attribute your success to? 

My family without a shadow of a doubt, but specifically I bestow that honour to both my Mum and Dad. Both my parents travelled to the UK in the late 50s/early 60s, and both have first-hand experience of the challenges that come with being a person of colour. From an early age, my parents instilled belief, hard work and determination into their children, so that I had the key fundamentals to achieve both my work and personal goals, and more importantly that I must not let the colour of my skin determine who or what society thinks I should be. 

Inside of work, I attribute my success to those senior colleagues who took me under their wings, helped to coach/train and guide me within employment/global mobility taxes, so with this opportunity at hand. I would like to thank Jim Boylan (Associate Partner, EY), Babatunde Omisakin (Senior Manager, EY), and Sam Wallis (Senior Employment Tax Specialist, Amazon)  for all their support along the way.

What challenges have you had to overcome during your career?  

Dyslexia. I was first diagnosed with dyslexia in 2006 when I worked at EY. My manager at the time recognised behaviours I was exhibiting through my written work and advised me to undertake a dyslexia assessment. This was difficult for me to comprehend at the time, yet I am extremely grateful to EY for helping me to identify my needs and helping me put in place coping mechanisms. This being said, I sit here responding to this question, and I ask myself, why was my dyslexia not picked up during my mainstream education? There could be many answers to this question, but race/colour, the area of London that I grew up in, all comes to mind.

What additional challenges have you faced as a Black person working in the tax profession?

I have experienced many challenges in my career, but the biggest was, and still remains the recognition and promotion of BMEs into senior leadership positions. All too often, employers deal with easier PR issues, for example, increasing women into leadership positions or LGBT issues such as Pride. Yet issues surrounding colour and Black Minority Ethnic (BME) representation are deemed to be a taboo within the business world. In a world that has felt the effects related to the recent death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, I am pretty sure most organisations swept the issue under the carpet or reacted to media articles once pushed, as the topic fell within the too difficult box. 

Drawing upon a personal challenge, I recall a time when I was up for promotion, and the leadership team advised me that my promotion had not been ratified due to my chargeable hours being below the expected threshold for the year. It was a bitter pill to swallow as I felt I had given my all over the year, however, I put on a brave face and took the decision on the chin so to speak; after all, it was communicated that my promotion was not achieved due to me not meeting one of the key metrics… well that’s what I thought! A few days after management advised me of the promotion results, the utilisation stats for the department were published, and low and behold, I achieved the highest chargeability nationwide – so unfortunately for the business, but fortunately for myself, I had something to challenge the decision, which I am glad to say was overturned. Again, I was grateful for the recognition and promotion, however, the point remains that I should have never been placed into such a position not to be recognised on merit. 

What can white colleagues do to help and support their Black colleagues in the workplace?  

Take the time to understand BMEs as a minority group in the UK. It’s a bit of a cliché, but BME colleagues need the support of our white counterparts (the majority) to be the voice of the minority – this is the only way real change, in my opinion, will occur. All too often, I have heard a Black colleague referred to as lazy, loud, even aggressive. I will not sit here and say other Black professionals or I can’t represent one or more of those views; however, this aside should not be the stereotypical view aired by our white colleagues. I recall sitting down with a Director to understand their view on hearing him label a Black colleague aggressive. In truth, my colleague had raised their voice in their exchange with the Director, however, this, in my opinion, was borne out of frustration rather my colleague being aggressive. I sat down with the Director outside of working hours and explained that my colleague (along with many Blacks at the time), were raised in deprived parts of London, largely within council estate communities – as a direct result, the royal we, are taught at a young age to stand up for our beliefs and sometimes we do this in the wrong way by raising our voice. I will not condone the raising of the voice by Black professionals as a reason we should not conform to acceptable professional standards, however, the courtesy must be extended both ways. For example, the Director played a part in the disagreement, by not articulating why he wanted my colleague to alter his findings; no explanation, just a directive to change the paper – when in reality all my colleague required was an explanation for the change, rather than what he received, I am the boss, do as I say attitude.

What do you think needs to be done to promote racial equality and inclusion in the industry? 

Something similar to the Rooney Rule that is used in America; the Rooney Rule is a National Football League policy that requires league teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs. 

As part of the talent recruitment/management agenda, it would go a long way if organisations introduced KPIs to ensure large employers ensure 50% of interviewees are from BME backgrounds. Within that percentage, 25% are represented by women. This is not a foolproof plan, but it would, in my opinion, help to increase BME representation. A number of people will read this and think, and I do not wish to recruit using metrics, their preference would be to hire the best candidate on merits. I would be lying if I said I disagree wholeheartedly with this view, as who would not want to work in a high performing team. However, ethnic representation in this day and age is a must, especially when organisations no matter how big or small service a diverse consumer base. For example, would you send five white males to pitch a proposal to a national employer headquartered in Nigeria? If you answered ‘yes’, then carry-on and let’s see where your organisation is in ten years from here! 

What advice do you have for young professionals on how to succeed in this industry? 

The advice I would give to a young me let alone young professionals is, never give up on your goals. Throughout your career, you will hear no and experience rejections several times over. As much as the no will hurt at the time, take the no, as a ‘not right now’; then go away, upskill and come back for the position you want.  

Please note that all comments and opinions provided are those of the individual and not the organisation/company they are employed by. 

Should you have any questions about this interview or if we can support hiring on your team or your own career search, please contact Sarah Reid.