Learning is key to addressing racism, Amaechi tells Festival of Work

11 Jun 2020 By Francis Churchill

The NBA basketball player turned organisational psychologist kicks off day two of the virtual conference by telling HR it will need to have ‘difficult conversations’

Businesses need to stop trying to upskill minority groups and instead focus their training on addressing the organisational cultures that are holding them back, delegates at the CIPD’s Festival of Work have been told.

John Amaechi, former NBA basketball player, organisational psychologist and non-executive director at Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, said learning and development was the answer to addressing issues of race and racism in the workplace, but it wasn’t the minority groups who needed training.

“We need to stop armouring minorities with education and instead de-weaponise the cultures that we oversee,” Amaechi said.

“We need to stop looking at this as a deficit model – black people aren’t broken, women aren’t broken, people with disabilities and impairments aren’t broken. The environment they are in is toxic,” Amaechi said. “That’s the model that we need to approach our learning with. And when you do that you suddenly realise who needs learning.”

Opening the second day of the online conference, Amaechi said learning was the answer to many of the big issues organisations were facing today, including the coronavirus outbreak and the longstanding issues of racism that have come to the fore because of the killing of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests.

“We’ve suddenly realised learning is the route to safety,” he said. “Learning how to use PPE, even learning how to wash our hands – we didn’t even know that we didn’t know how to wash our hands and this is the problem with learning.”

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HR departments will be the ones that have to deal with the repercussions of these events, said Amaechi. “Every one of your leaders is going to have to deal with mourning, anxiety, a sense of betrayal in their workforce… You’re going to have to deal with their reframed life and work expectations now that they’ve had this different way of working for a while,” he said. Organisations are also going to have “some of the most difficult conversations [about racism] moderated internally that we’ve ever had”.

But to make learning successful, employers need to start teaching their values – something that isn’t happening right now. Employers provide technical, compliance and governance learning, “but we don’t do learning to mandate that our people are aligned with our values, and the last two or three weeks has proved that”, Amaechi said. “We need to mandate that if we want to make a difference.”

Giving advice on how to approach the issue of racism, Amaechi called on white people to “stop being surprised” when their colleagues or co-workers tell them about the discrimination they face. “It wounds my soul – when I tell people that people cross the street when I walk, when I tell people that I’m stopped and searched three times a year... to see the surprise on the face of white people. Because it tells me that for their entire lives they’ve been unaware of something they could have helped stop.”

He also said organisations should not use black colleagues as the source of expertise for organisational change. “Black people are experts in their experience, they are not necessarily experts in organisational change. I speak to you and my expertise is informed by my blackness, but I can’t help your organisation because I’m black – it’s because of my expertise,” Amaechi said.

“Black people aren’t your library and they aren’t your librarians. For many of the organisations that you are a part of there will not be a huge number of black people and they can’t be responsible for stopping the racism that they suffer.” 

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