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How should HR handle suspected racism?

Blair McPherson

A rather silly attempt at a joke or evidence of racism? You’re the manager you decide? The advice from HR is this isn’t going to go away. It shouldn’t influence your thinking but the manager at the centre of this has delivered a very impressive improvement in services, they get results, board members have noted this and expressed their approval. Contributor Blair McPherson, former Director of Community services and author of An Elephant in the Room.

This wasn’t originally a formal complaint but arose out of a staff training session, one of the participants raised it as an example of the experience of some staff at the hands of a particular high profile manager. The trainer had stressed that the discussion was confidential in order to get participants to talk freely but didn’t feel they could ignore what had been said. The trainer reported the discussion to HR without naming names. Without knowing more it would be difficult to say whether this was a case of insensitivity or over sensitivity, a personally conflict or evidence of racists attitudes. Do you try and keep it informal or commission a formal independent investigation? HR will advise.

You commission a low key investigation by a manager from another area of service. The investigating officer interviews the trainer, the staff at the training event in question and the manager alleged to have made the comment. The manager denies making the remark and it is one person’s world against another. The investigator concludes there is no evidence to support a claim of racism. The complainant is very unhappy and says the investigation should have been more extensive. HR advise another wider investigation.

The complainant now feels vulnerable as they have been identified as the individual who made the allegation. They make a formal complaint that their comments made in a discussion they believed to be confidential have been shared with the person in question, who is also their line manager. They believe that their position in the team and the organisation has been made unworkable and are threatening to leave and claim constructive dismissal. The advice from HR is that if the individual does take the organisation to an Industrial Tribunal the organisation should seek a financial settlement before the hearing, because the complainant has a strong case.

Neither senior management nor the board consider the manager to be a racist. They view this as a case of conflicting personalities and any adverse publicity as a PR issue. HR advise looking at the broader issues around the culture within the organisation.

HR thinking echoes your knowledge of the manager in question you think they probable did make the remark, that they may hold some negative stereotypes of black people and are capable of saying things that are ignorant and insensitive. They realised they shouldn’t have said what they and so are now denying ever having said it.  They would not consider themselves racist nor would most of their colleagues or the board members. Ironically it was this type of behaviour that the training event sort to challenge.

Is this just a case of making equality awareness and sensitivity training compulsory for all managers or is a more radical response required? Whatever the response of the organisation HR will provide advice it is up to managers whether they follow it.

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