Treating BAME staff more harshly could be life threatening in the current climate

16 Jul 2020 By Tinu Cornish

Ethnic minority employees are routinely subjected to more formal processes, with repercussions for their progression and wellbeing, argues Tinu Cornish

For many, it was the disproportionate nature of the consequence to George Floyd’s alleged crime – buying a coffee with a forged $20 note – that magnified their horror. The parallel of this in our workplaces is the over-representation of BAME staff receiving complaints, disciplinaries and fitness to practice investigations; a much less obviously horrific phenomenon to police brutality of course, but one that is part of the same sliding scale of historic abuse and discrimination.

Research for the General Medical Council shows managers of BAME staff, instead of dealing with performance issues using a coaching approach, overwhelmingly go straight to formal processes in a way they wouldn’t with white reports. Once BAME employees are in a formal process an adversarial dynamic is established. Since unconscious bias arises out of our fight and flight mechanisms, adversarial situations can result in biased perception. For example, BAME individuals’ mistakes are often seen as defining their abilities rather than something to learn from.

As a consequence, formal processes often result in discriminatory outcomes. The damage to the individuals concerned, their teams and the organisation is often huge in terms of increased stress and reduced wellbeing and morale. As we have seen from the data on Covid-19 deaths, issues that undermine BAME people’s health and wellbeing over the long term are resulting in preconditions that make them more susceptible to the virus. Going through a long disciplinary process could literally be life threatening in the present climate. 

At the same time, BAME staff are using formal grievance procedures more readily than their white counterparts because the subtle nature of systemic racism means managers tend to ‘bat away’ or rationalise complaints (‘I am sure they did not mean it that way…’) This happens because people believe that for an incident to be racism, the individual complained about has to be a racist. But people do not have to be racists to be part of a racist system. If privilege is invisible to those who have it and bias is unconscious, then good people can behave in ways that result in discriminatory outcomes. 

Unconscious bias training needs to focus on how bias leads to managers having ‘in groups’ and ‘out groups’. Out group team members experience subtle behaviour  – microaggressions – that let them know they are less valued or seen through the lens of stereotype. They also get less opportunity for leading high-profile projects, networking and training and development. Without these, BAME individuals find it a lot more difficult to develop the track record that puts them in a good position for promotion, which contributes to their under-representation at managerial levels. 

So managers need to ask themselves if they are treating all team members as their ‘number one’ and, if not, they need to actively and consciously build in opportunities. At least one of the major consultancies, for example, has developed an objective system for allocating stretch projects that can be monitored on the basis of gender and ethnicity. And going back to formal disciplinaries launched by managers, HR must take a compassionate approach that asks not who is right or wrong, but seeks to understand the situation better. Mandatory informal stages are built into grievance, disciplinary and complaints processes, so there is time for this conversation. The impact on BAME staff could be much more radical than you might think.

Tinu Cornish is director of SEA-Change Consultancy and chair of the Diversity and Inclusion at Work Group

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