Posted by:18 February, 2011
The dismissal of two well known sports commentators from their high paid TV jobs serves as a timely reminder about the issues of discrimination and bullying in work situations.
But just as bullying and racism are present in the workplace, so too are those who watch it happen - and do nothing.
Often those present know instinctively what’s happening is not right, yet they do nothing to stop it. Why? Is it fear that they too will become a target for the bullies or is it that they feel powerless in the face of the prevailing ward/office/staff room culture?
We are not talking here about physical abuse, overt racism or inappropriate sexual behaviour. We are talking about the office “banter”, the sexist joke, the insensitive remark about a disabled person, the ageist assumption or the inappropriate reference to a person’s sexuality.
If you’re the only woman, the only Muslim or the only disabled person in the team, if you’re new to the office, the most junior member of the team or if your line manager appears to collude with this behaviour, a reluctance to challenge is certainly understandable.
Staff on equality and diversity courses have spoken about their concern that they will be dismissed by colleagues as being too “PC” [politically correct] and oversensitive, or labelled “difficult” by their manager and accused of seeing offence where none was intended.
An organisation that states everyone is responsible for equality and diversity needs to teach people how to challenge appropriately, to challenge without damaging your career prospects or ending in no one talking to you in the canteen/staff room.
At the same time, as we raise people’s awareness and instill a personal responsibility we must prepare people for retuning to the reality of their workplace.
As part of taking the equality message to a large group of front line staff, an organisation I worked for ran conferences which involve workshops and a theatre group. A play they produced takes a typical work situation and uses it to illustrate discrimination, prejudice, myths and stereotypes in the workplace.
When we briefed the actors we deliberately chose a setting that none of the audience worked in, because we did not want people to get distracted by challenging the accuracy of the action, nor did we want people to think we were saying this type of behaviour was typical of their workplace.
The play is set in an old people’s home and is about the induction of a new member of staff by a colleague who has worked at the home for years. She has some rather negative attitudes to older people and is preoccupied with not “catching anything” from the residents.
Our new member of staff meanwhile is a male in a predominantly female environment. He is also east European, providing plenty of scope for the actors to explore attitudes to non-British workers.
As a new member of staff, “Illich” has concerns about the care practice in the home and the attitude of staff to the elderly residents but he quickly learns that he is not expected to question the actions of experienced staff.
The manager of the home calls him into her office to ask him how his first day has been, where he tries, unsuccessfully, to raise his concerns. Illich remains in character to ask the audience how he should challenge both staff and the manager.
Illich meets with the manager at the end of his first week and intends to challenge her about what’s going on in the home but struggles as he is on his probationary period and can’t afford to lose this job.
The audience are asked to stop the action at any point and advise him what to do and say. Despite a large audience of over one hundred participation is high and people get really involved.
And, unsurprisingly, the feedback was excellent.
From The People Manager
Blair McPherson is a former local authority director and author of a number of management books, including Equipping Managers for an Uncertain Future and An Elephant in the Room. Follow him on Twitter: @blairmcpherson1