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Ending workplace racism starts with talking

23rd Apr 2021
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Another high-profile employer - the Church of England - has been exposed as trying to keep staff grievances under wraps, according to a BBC Panorama investigation.

Instead, the Church is accused of “buying silence” as well as the tactical use of non-disclosure agreements. The picture presented by the Panorama programme is one of insensitivity and a preference for shutting down situations that had any potential to cause disputes and controversy. The HR team, in one example, decided that labelling a young black member of staff ‘Bananaman’ and sending him a picture of a banana with his face superimposed, couldn’t be considered racist. In its statement the Church admitted that NDAs were being used, but only in “exceptional circumstances” when grievance processes hadn’t led to a resolution.

Organisations like the Church are made up of different types of people, from different backgrounds and generations, some of them with more power than others. There are always going to be mismatches in ways of thinking, misunderstandings, problems even when there is no kind of malice intended. That’s going to happen even within a culture where, in principle, you would assume there would be an instinctive spirit of understanding, a willingness to accept and forgive mistakes.

Since 1986 there have been 20 separate reports looking into racism in the Church, offering 160 recommendations. None of that effort has seemed to address the everyday dynamics of workplace relationships, how they play out and what happens when they break down.

In the 21st century, employers need to have the strength and quality of people culture and skills to deal with problems out in the open. Shutting down conflict isn’t an option. As has been seen so often, it either leads to simmering discontent and rumours of bad practice, or just the potential for shocks and damage to reputation.

Informal options for dealing with grievances early are crucial - mediation, neutral assessment - the methods that encourage an open sharing of perspectives on a level playing field, not judgment by HR or management. And just as important is the stock of conversation skills available across the organisation, among leaders, managers and employees in general. It’s when people lack the skills to face up to and deal with difficult, awkward conversations that small problems are put to one side. Then those problems are only likely to get worse; people feel ignored and bitter. A misjudgment or what was meant to be banter starts to feel more systematic, like bullying.

More than anything, employees at all levels are looking for a sense of psychological safety. They want to be able to trust their organisation will listen, show empathy, so that whatever situation they happen to be facing they know there’s a constructive way forward. Tolerance is needed by all. Just proclaiming a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy on an issue like racism or bullying and harassment can have unintended consequences. Instead of an impact on actual day-to-day behaviour, it drives bullying and discrimination underground and into more subtle forms. The victims are even more aware of how serious the accusation is and more reluctant to speak out. With no new training or services to access, managers stick to what they know, using different tactics. Instead, employers need to be encouraging more self-aware management, focused on maintaining the balance between building trust, openness and job roles. 


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