Expert comment: racism in the workplace

Categories: Salford Business School

Dr Jonathan Lord, Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Employment Law, University of Salford Business School, comments on the recent Ngozi Fulani and Lady Susan Hussey encounter at Buckingham Palace, which led to accusations of systemic racism within the institution. 

The issue around the Ngozi Fulani and Lady Susan Hussey encounter is that it focuses on how British institutions are now reacting to sensitive topics such as racism. Whether this was casual or not, the detailed interaction and witnesses who verified the comments have been widely noted as being unacceptable by many people. Damage limitation will be at the heart of the decision, but the palace reacting swiftly reflects the younger Royal Family members’ ethos and more contemporary view of the world.

The comments are extremely poor. But also the whole encounter seems to be extremely disappointing, as the lady in waiting allegedly touched Fulani’s hair and then proceeded to cross-examine her for a number of minutes. You would argue that this is how Lady Hussey has operated previously and may not have been challenged, which is no defence but is symptomatic of those who don’t have access to a diverse way of life or believe that their mannerisms are accepted as it was once deemed acceptable in their time or indeed world.

The other worrying issue highlighted here is the reasoning for the question, with Fulani highlighting that she was representing her charity at a reception on gender-based violence and the questions asked were completely out of place and not relevant to why they were both at the meeting. The final worrying issue is the prolonged nature of questioning; emotional intelligence would normally indicate when someone feels uncomfortable and networking at a reception such as this would require this awareness.

Tackling this issue in the wider context of work is difficult as it requires a change in both organisational culture as well as individual approach to racism. The HRM approaches are to continually develop people’s understanding of diversity and how racism appears in both biased and unbiased forms. But it also requires a level of conversation that reaffirms the message that racism does exist and that a zero tolerance approach will always be followed.

Therefore, to root out racism, employers need to critically assess their culture from top to bottom and tackle racism at a systemic level by considering where and how far it is embedded into their own organisations. Systemic racism exists where bias and prejudice are built into systems, processes, policies, as well as customs and practices of organisations. The main stimulus by systemic racism is found in the leadership of an organisation and has developed over a long period of time. Therefore, to tackle this form of prejudice, usually evolves over time as well as through the interaction between Fulani and Lady Hussey being broadly broadcast so that all people are aware of how to interact within the modern world.

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