As a lawyer and managing director of a company that specialises in culture, law, and diversity and inclusion, I investigate allegations of harassment, bullying and discrimination often. The nature of my work means that I’m no stranger to the discourse surrounding racism and how it manifests in the workplace.
“Banter”, as we’ve seen played out in the Yorkshire cricket scandal, is routinely badged as fun and a laugh, but the boundaries between banter, bullying, microaggressions and racism are thin.
Racism is not banter. While some believe that no intent to be racist equates to an absence of racism, this is not the case. Not meaning to crash into someone’s car doesn’t erase the crash, or the resulting damage. Intent is a tricky issue to overcome. Unconscious bias is just that – unconscious – and, without the right tools or environment to deconstruct learned behaviour, change is quashed by shame and defensiveness. This kind of toxic culture prevents the growth of employees, who may never have had the opportunity to understand what unconscious bias is, and the harm it can do.
It’s important to note, however, that, while some people’s actions can be understood by their lack of knowledge and understanding, there are groups of people who are intentionally racist and use the veil of misunderstanding, or “banter”, to excuse their behaviour. People can be tentative and often fearful of addressing behaviour – not wanting to put a foot wrong, cause more distress or be branded racist – but this inaction is unhelpful.
I have seen first-hand how opening up a compassionate, constructive dialogue can heal and improve workspaces. This is only a starting point, though, and must always be scaffolded by expert strategies, investigations, better internal procedures, change management and much more. It’s not as easy as having a heartfelt conversation and moving on.
What has happened at Yorkshire County Cricket Club appears to be, so far, an example of what not to do when tackling allegations of racism in the workplace. The club seems to have had a root-and-branch issue for some time that was left woefully unaddressed, allowing negative behaviours to develop. The remarks allegedly made by Michael Vaughan to a group of Asian players at Yorkshire in 2009 strike me as being learned behaviour, reflective of an attitude and culture woven into the fabric of the club before the start of his tenure. He denies making these remarks, but if he did so, his failure to acknowledge their root causes will not allow him to reflect and will undoubtedly cause more harm.
After watching the interview with Joe Root, who denied witnessing any instances of racism, I found it interesting how he placed the focus on “the way forward”. There was little pause and reflection about the magnitude of Azeem Rafiq’s testimony. Rushing into action without deep reflection of impact, why and how this happened, and who Yorkshire intends to be as a club, will not change its behaviours and structures.
In contrast, I have personally had the pleasure of supporting employers who are committed to action and change, who have recognised their flaws and identified where improvements must be made. Part of the work I do is about creating safe spaces to examine what and where things are going wrong, and how issues such as racism take hold in structures, policies and behaviours. Only through this honest reflection and assessment can we help companies and organisations make the necessary changes.
Many business structures were created without inclusion, anti-racism and equality in mind. They were chosen for operational, or financial, purposes, and employers are not prioritising deconstructing them, or don’t know how to do so safely. Without structures that support recognising and addressing racist behaviours in the workplace, training and discussions about racism will only go so far.
Hard policy lines need to be drawn that are reflective but, most importantly, best suited to supporting an anti-racist work culture, supported by accountability and sanction measures. In its most simple form, this means allowing anonymous and identifiable complaints of racism to be made and assessed objectively. Support should be provided to the complainants, followed by an investigation, then a decision as to what the most appropriate action might be. It may be disciplinary action whereby someone is fired, it could be mediation to bring the parties involved together to resolve and find a way forward, or it could also be a coaching conversation.
There is no one fixed solution. This is all subject to context and employers need definitive clarity. What is defined as racism, microaggression, bullying and harassment? Where is the line? Ultimately, a consistent approach that is reflected upon routinely is essential, because, in my experience, every person has a different understanding, a different viewpoint and a different resolution need.
The issues surrounding racism are becoming increasingly more complex and these exposés will continue until real action is taken. It’s time to stop reactive statements and box-ticking. The longer this continues, the greater the risk for employers and their employees.