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Race in the workplace: a barometer of organisational health

Veena Vasista, 23 January 2015

In December, NHS Providers published Leading by example: the race equality opportunity for NHS provider boards. This report was published to support NHS bodies in implementing the Workplace Race Equality Standard (WRES), which is mandatory for NHS employers from April this year

When I heard about the Standard and received the NHS Providers report, I rolled my eyes. I thought, “Another standard and another push to promote race equality that won’t do very much.” 

But by the time I had finished reading the report I was struck by what I think of as shifts in beliefs that bode well.

  • The report highlights that the experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) staff can be a barometer for the wider health of an organisation. As recently as November 2010, when I wrote a report called Snowy Peaks – ethnic diversity at the top for the Runnymede Trust, I and many others were writing from this perspective and it didn’t feel like the message was getting through. How we treat people from traditionally marginalised and more-vulnerable-to-abuse-than-other groups mirrors home truths about what kind of communities, e.g. workplaces, we are cultivating.
  • The report questions the value of diversity champions; their presence on a management board can easily become an excuse for others to relinquish their personal responsibility for promoting what I now refer to as equity.
  • The report highlights that creating communities rooted in equity and justice for all is at its heart a culture issue. This emphasis, to my mind, is an improvement over pushing for mere compliance with a standard.
  • The case studies in the report are not presented as “here’s an organisation that’s cracked it!” Instead, some explicitly state that this work is ongoing with one step leading to another. In the past, even just four years ago, reports were all about saying “here’s people who are doing it, why can’t you?” with pithy case studies that ignore the complexity of this cultural work.

I walked out of the public policy and equality arena four years ago after writing Snowy Peaks. While I know many people felt the report was valuable, I felt it was a sham. I had hoped to make the point that, ultimately, this is a moral or ethical matter. Our workplaces are communities and the task at hand is to create communities that are nourishing and equitable for all. Full stop.

So I was disappointed by the Foreword to my report, in which a senior person from Lloyds Bank brought the argument for taking action back to a business case.

I felt, too, that I had come under pressure to frame the issue in terms of how to assess leadership potential and identify assets when assessing people from ‘different’, e.g. low-income, non-White, non-Christian backgrounds, whereas I wanted to challenge this  ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ way of thinking about workplace relationships.

I also thought that the report was neither explicit nor forceful enough in its challenge  to the then conventional change model, which focused on:

  • leadership in the form of a diversity champion on the management board;
  • the idea that you can’t manage what you can’t measure and thus change must be driven by quantifiable metrics;
  • accountability rooted in knuckles getting wrapped when the metrics weren’t generating good looking numbers;
  • communication as vehicle for getting the message out there that leaders in the organisation are committed to equality, e.g. statements such as “We are committed to be an equal opportunities employer”.

I aspired to nudge people to question that approach to culture change and think about it in a wider sense:

  • To focus on leadership everywhere in the organisation – with each individual taking a lead to be responsible and hold themselves and others accountable.
  • To be driven by the work itself, the work essential to cultural change, rather than by number crunching.
  • To explore how we talk with each other about sensitive issues such as injustice and racism in the workplace, rather than on communicating a lovely sounding message.
  • To get people thinking “oh, we need to talk openly about values, morals and ethics – rather than business cases.”
  • To consider the role empathy must play in changing beliefs and behaviours.

I am still very much engaged with framing racism and racial discrimination as ethical issues. I also believe even more deeply that in any community wanting to address these issues, people must be prepared to step into self-reflection, open and honest dialogue and conflict.

The road to peace generally involves experiencing conflict and taking risks. When we navigate these conflicts and risk-taking constructively, we generate the necessary shifts in beliefs and behaviours.

Because that’s what this is about: questioning our beliefs and behaviours day in and day out. Creating healthy workplace and service communities in the NHS or any other organisation is about relationships – how we relate to ourselves, others, the work we do, power, conflict and more.

Let’s receive the NHS Workplace Race Equality Standard as a welcome nudge to kick-start people into doing the work of rooting our creativity (ability to bring into being) and power (capacity to take action) in love (or compassion if the word ‘love’ makes you feel uncomfortable) and justice.

And this means EVERYBODY. No exceptions. No us, no them – just WE in this all together and having to wake ourselves up, speak truth, listen to one another and take responsible action.

And I think what we’ll find is that dialogue about racism and racial discrimination open up into dialogue about sexism, bullying, homophobia and oppressive behaviors more generally. We’ll find that fear plays an important role in toxic, oppressive cultures.

Having stepped into fear, anger and sadness, shame and other shadowy, emotional landscapes, we’ll start to discover that the foundation for a culture that usefully embraces diversity (to be frank, I can’t stand this term anymore  - I prefer to talk about pluralism) and equity is one that embraces the notion of our shared humanity.

Paying more attention to what we have in common is what will give us a strong foundation to navigate our differences.

As a brown-skinned woman from the USA, in my personal life dealing with racism and racial discrimination has been one entry point into taking back my autonomy and reclaiming my dignity, into practicing love and justice in my relationship with myself and others.

And I believe the same can happen collectively, if we are willing to go there.


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