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Safe Space #9 – what can a manager do about racism at work?

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Welcome to the Safe Space – where managers can share their issues, and gain advice from top learning & development consultants.

Here at =mc we encourage every participant we meet on our programmes to get in touch if they have specific issues they want to follow up on. From this we hear some common problems, issues, challenges, and worries. In this regular feature we share some of those challenges, and our advice, for dealing with them.

This time, the issue comes from a manager with a thorny issue: supporting a colleague who has been treated badly but doesn’t want to make a complaint.

Sophia MoreauThis month our consultants are joined by guest blogger Sophia Moreau. Sophia is an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion consultant and a multi-award-winning campaigner. She has spent the past 10 years working in charities, unions, local authorities and education institutions. Sophia is an associate at the charity Getting on Board, where she delivers monthly training sessions on diversity and inclusion in board recruitment.

What is the issue?

I am a manager, in a mid-sized non-profit organisation. Like lots of places, my employer has been working on new initiatives to be more inclusive and diverse. I think this is a great thing to do. They have been doing things like training, awareness building sessions, creating staff networks and changing recruitment tactics. It’s being driven by HR of course, and senior managers too. But I don’t think it is working, or at least not yet. A member of my team is terribly upset, and now I don’t know what to do. My colleague has told me they have been subjected to racist comments and micro-aggressions throughout the five years they have worked here. I had no idea; this was a shock to me. They gave me some clear examples. In one situation, someone said all these new initiatives would make it too easy for my colleague to get promoted, implying they didn’t deserve promotion and any such promotion wouldn’t be on merit. My colleague has also been repeatedly called the name of another black colleague. This happened recently in a training session, and my colleague corrected the person, who got defensive and then responded with ‘well, your name is hard to say’. This is just awful, it is not acceptable, and I need to support them. But they have also said they do not want to raise a formal complaint or go to HR. I feel like my hands are tied. I want to help my colleague, to make this a better place to work, but don’t know what I can do when I’ve been asked to keep it to myself. What should I do?

messy string in lots of colours

What Sophia says:

It is important to remember that ‘culture eats strategy for lunch’. You mention that the EDI initiatives are recent and you’re not sure if they’re working yet. If the culture needs changing, even the best policies cannot act as a silver bullet. Your colleague’s experience has highlighted many of the pitfalls of diversification efforts which focus more heavily on process than culture change. A good question to start with is why. Firstly, why did the colleague(s) who made those comments feel able to do so? Why did other onlookers not say anything? Why doesn’t the affected colleague want to raise this formally? The answer to the third question may be informed by the first and second.

It is easy to see why your colleague may be reluctant to formalise her concerns about racism at work. One study showed that in over 80 percent of discrimination complaints, the worker does not receive a favourable outcome. However, it is also easy to see why you would have difficulty proceeding without a straightforward process of formality. It’s worth gently unpacking why the process has repelled your colleague. Is there a worry that the outcome is predetermined or that she will not be believed? Are there concerns about being perceived as a trouble-maker or having her own reputation damaged by speaking up more formally? Or is it that reliving the experience is too distressing?

You also mention the EDI efforts being primarily driven by HR and senior management. However, in your message you sound quite shocked and panicked by this – and understandably so. This does however raise the question of whether you have been equipped with the tools to address racism in the workplace as a manager. Otherwise, you run the risk of leaving it to your colleague to experience, describe, diagnose and address the racism they themselves have suffered. The emotional labour already exercised by your colleague is costly, and I would always advise signposting and covering the cost of counselling services. This may be covered by your organisation’s employee assistance scheme.

Even if this colleague is disinclined to make a formal complaint, this does not mean that any further action must solely fall on the shoulders of your colleague. In this instance, the genesis of the further action could be the manager, not the person who has complained. If the conduct described breaks those new EDI and HR policies you referenced – as it should – this may be the time to put those policies to use. However, you will need to take great care to respect the confidentiality of the complainant and ensure that it does not trace back to one person. Whichever path this takes, what you do not want is a process that burdens the affected.

Working in a non-profit organisation adds another layer of urgency to remedy the situation. When an organisation exists to further social impact, there are few things more inconsistent with that mission than racism. The treatment your colleague has been subjected to over the past five years has highlighted a structural concern in your organisation, which is worth addressing on the basis alone. This is an opportunity to stand by the ethos of the new direction your non-profit seeks to take.

What our consultants say: Yvette:

Sophia has given you some fantastic ideas here. I echo everything she has said: this is about culture, not policy. Don’t expect your colleague to do all the heavy lifting and emotional labour. Do take management action.

As a manager, you have three important roles here: to your colleague, to the wider team, and to your organisation. Primarily, your responsibility is to provide individual support so that the people you work with can be brilliant at their jobs.  Supporting your colleague comes front and centre. Respect their wishes, their experiences and find practical ways to help them. Listening to the barriers, challenges and experiences of your colleague is exactly the kind of support you can provide as their manager. Ask plenty of open questions and listen with the intent to understand what they have been through. Show you are listening with open body language, and reiterate that you are providing a safe space for your colleague to be candid in. Also consider other ways of supporting this person: champion them and their development, give them opportunities to learn or get involved in new projects, and keep checking in with them to see if their experience is improving. The good thing is that they now feel they can come to you and share concerns. Whilst this has taken a long time, you can build further trust from here.

Secondly, you have a responsibility to other people that you work with. Culture is made of people, stories, rituals, and routines. This means everyone you interact with in your organisation is part of that culture, and in every interaction, you have the opportunity to influence that culture. Speak up when you witness these behaviours yourself no matter how minor it seems at the time. Give feedback to people, even if you don’t manage them yourself. Explain why their comments are harmful, the impact they have, and why this is not acceptable. Offer this feedback with a clear intent to help them to change. Centre the voices of those who feel unable to speak up by using your influence.

Finally, you have a duty to uphold the organisational vision and values. This means bringing to life the vision set out by HR and the senior team. In your team meetings, meetings with colleagues and in casual conversation, talk about the changes you want to see, the kinds of behaviours you want people to stop or start engaging in. Don’t leave these initiatives in the hands of HR, talk about what they mean to you and why you think they could be powerful. You say you think the organisation is taking a great approach – shout it out. Don’t be afraid to say things are still changing, and there is still plenty of learning needed. Don’t be shy about the fact that some people are not yet ‘getting it’ and need to be held to account. But help keep up the momentum, and be part of making change happen.

What’s next?

If you’d like to explore ways of handling for situations like this, contact us online or call 020 7978 1516 to discuss similar challenges and how we might be able to help.

If you’d like to get in touch with Sophia directly, find her on twitter: @MsSMoreau

Finally, if you’re facing a challenge you’d like some advice on in the next issue of the Safe Space, email us on Whilst we can’t promise to publish all the requests we receive, we will offer advice by email as a minimum.

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Yvette Gyles

About Yvette Gyles

Yvette specialises in leadership, personal effectiveness, change and innovation. Before joining =mc, she worked in HR for several years in both the private and charity sector as an HR...