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Dealing with racism

Aki Kalliatakis
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Question from Sumarie:

A hot topic these days - racism, and we recently had our first incident. I realised that we do not have any policy in place which makes it difficult when it comes to the disciplinary hearing. Is there somewhere a standard policy that I can modify to suit our business perhaps? 

Answer:

I’m always reluctant to have too many policies and procedures that force customer-facing staff to say and do certain specific things. Nevertheless, you do need some internal guidelines in your business so that you are able to deal with these incidents when they occur – especially when it comes to disciplinary action and possible CCMA challenges.

My immediate reaction is to suggest that your business should deal with it in the same way as when customers – and colleagues for that matter – are hurt or offended by what other people say, such as when a male says something sexist or offensive or degrading to a woman. However, I realise that it’s also not so simple when it comes to racism. We used to be a nation that could laugh at ourselves, and not be offended by simple comments. Perhaps that has changed. Perhaps you and I haven’t really come to grips with how hurtful the past has been for citizens in this country. I know that with my name and Greek ancestry, even though I consider myself a pure South African, I find it tiresome when people crack jokes about Greeks – as if I was actually involved in whatever they are mocking. I also feel hurt when black people in our country use the derogatory term “Mlungu” to describe me, and when they laugh at my insistence on punctuality or speaking a language that I too can participate in.

So my suggestion would be that while you start putting together some policy or guidelines for your business, (you can probably also talk to HR people in large organisations who may be able to share their thoughts,) you probably also need to create sensitivity amongst all employees about the words and actions that be misunderstood or used to offend. One essential element, for example, would be to talk about consistency: I was in some doctors rooms recently when a junior (black) receptionist was admonished by the senior (white) receptionist for spending too much time talking on the phone. The irony was that the senior person had just spent 10 minutes talking to some family member in an outgoing call! Another point to emphasise is that there are people out there with their own agendas who wait to pounce on anyone well-known who says anything vaguely racist. I believe that is what happened with the senior economist, who I know is a really nice fellow.

Good luck – you are going to need it! (At least until we can all learn to laugh at life again.



Aki Kalliatakis is Managing Partner of The Leadership LaunchPad, a specialist in customer service, building repeat business and service-led marketing