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How to tackle racism in the workplace? A quiet word or public shame?

Photo: Andrew Gwozdziwycz

He was just another black male on work experience somewhere in central Bristol, and although hate crime is notably on the rise, Jimmy (not his real name) was shocked when he was openly called a “Coon”. The expletive was then repeated by the manager (of all people), ensuring the message was clear. In need of help, Jimmy approached me, seeking advice. I too was shocked, because I haven’t experienced overt racism in the UK for well over a decade. This incident is simply too blatant to ignore.

“People had witnessed all of this and did nothing,”

A first instinct would be to name and shame the perpetrators and pressure the company to punish them. However this story took a quieter, but potentially effective turn. Although the matter was initially reported to the Cable for exposure, after contacting the Race and Equality Centre, the matter has been resolved internally. Jimmy is back at work in another department and happy to forgive. The racist has been warned of potential suspension if any further reports of this nature came about. But, it’s not as simple as it sounds.

Jimmy also informed us that his bosses don’t want the exposure, and that he himself is afraid of becoming a potentially bigger target for revenge if he speaks out. While the Race and Equality Centre intervention led the employer to take it seriously, what persists is the fact that others didn’t speak out for him. “People had witnessed all of this and did nothing,” insinuating, presuming perhaps, they were too afraid of the consequences of challenging such behaviour.

An all too common scandal, yet one we may all have been complicit in, at some point. As such the victim accepts a quiet resolution too, partially due to fear and of having no other option. Is that enough? While something must be done, and the public needs to know, how far should action against the perpetrator or employer go? The employer didn’t ask for it, so rightly perhaps (in some cases) internal processes should be let to run their course. This means the victim can return to work in the comfort that no-one has lost their jobs or been hung out to dry in public, and the company has an opportunity to resolve matters without unfavourable media attention.

Despite a real and legitimate desire for punishment, should we accept that a such a compromise is something we can work with? It appears that public shaming doesn’t necessarily encourage people to speak out. Or, does silent resolution hide commonplace racism from the cold light of day?

If speaking up comes at a price, perhaps confidentiality and compromise is necessary? Like Jimmy is, the perpetrators should be grateful that organisations such as the Race and Equality Centre can achieve such results. Otherwise they and the company might find their names and faces splashed across these pages. But is this gentle approach enough to prevent more abuse like that Jimmy received, and worse?

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