It’s big and it’s scary, it’s in the room and ignoring it won’t make it go away. An Elephant in the Room is an expression to describe a big topic everyone is ignoring, pretending it doesn’t exist because it is too scary or too difficult to deal with. Racism like sexism, ageism and homophobia-discrimination is a big, scary topic.
The killing of George Floyd and the subsequent global protests present organisations with the opportunity of keeping the Equality conversation going and maintain the momentum for change but only if they know how.
Equality in the workplace is about ensuring people are not treated unfairly or discriminated against as a result of being different due to their race, gender, disability, sexuality, faith or age. This is not restricted to recruitment but extends to how people are treated at work. Do employees feel their manager and their organisation treats them fairly?
Diversity recognises that it broadens and strengthens their team/organisation to have within it people from a range of different backgrounds and experiences. That people who are different will bring something new to the team or organisation but only if their manager and the organisation values what they have to offer.
Equality and diversity is not restricted to employment, it also covers service delivery. Are people less likely to receive a service if they are black, gay, disabled, old or Muslim? Does the service offered take account of differences arising out of race, gender, disability, faith, age and sexuality. Or is everyone treated as if we all have the same needs, interests, circumstances and beliefs. Equality and diversity is not about treating everyone the same. The task is to help managers and staff understand this and explore what this means for their team, their service and their place of work.
This will involve changing the way people think and behave at work by identifying the questions people really want to ask but are reluctant to for fear of being labelled a racist, sexist or homophobic. Identifying stereotypes, myths and prejudices and challenging them.
If staff feel valued and respected, if they feel they are treated fairly then the organisation they work for is unlikely to be characterised by bullying, harassment and discrimination. This requires managers to become better people managers to improve their leadership skills by gaining insight into how their behaviour affects the people they manage.
To realise the full benefits of a diverse workforce the organisation needs to identify the complex reasons why women and people from black and minority ethnic groups are underrepresented in senior management posts. Not simply putting this down to overt discrimination but recognising that people different to you experience the world in a different way to you. This affects their approach to seeking employment and promotion.
A diverse workforce requires all staff to develop a sensitivity towards their colleagues by gaining knowledge and insight into how people who are different to you experience the world of work.
To achieve these changes in the way people behave at work we need to identify equality champions, people at all levels within the organisation who are prepared to put time and energy to raising awareness around equality and diversity issues.
Fairness in the workplace involves getting people to talk openly about race, religion, gender, disability, ageism and sexuality. It’s about creating a safe environment for people to say what they are really thinking and it’s about creating appropriate opportunities for people to be challenged.
Most people are not racist, sexist, ageist or homophobic but they are bombarded with negative stereotypes and myths in their daily lives. Their own limited opportunity for mixing with people different to them can lead to ignorance, insensitivity and unthinking prejudice. Opportunities need to be created to challenge these negative stereotypes, myths and prejudices and increase awareness.
Blair McPherson former Director and author and blogger www.blairmcpherson.co.uk