A Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High School learner ranted on WhatsApp recently, using the K-word against her fellow learners. What was she thinking? Did she learn nothing from Penny Sparrow? However, this article is not about the young woman’s foolishness, parental responsibility or how the school is handling it. We are discussing racism in the workplace, and what an employer should do to eradicate this menace.
In the words of Chief Justice Mogoeng:
‘The duty to eradicate racism and its tendencies has become all the more apparent, essential and urgent now. For this reason, nothing that threatens to take us back to our racial past should be glossed over, accommodated or excused….’
(SARS v Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration and Others, ZACC, 2017)
Take racism seriously and follow these six rules:
1. Ignore it at your peril
Like sexual harassment, racism can cost the company hugely, and I am not just talking about law suits. Far more serious is the cost related to lost production time, broken trust, a disengaged workforce and a mountain to climb to put it all together again.
2. Create a policy
Zero tolerance towards racism cannot be left to chance and the occasional discussion. It must be clearly stated and referred to often. Everyone must know and be aware of the company’s values and the steps that will be taken if employees (at any level) cross the line.
3. Watch out for signs
When employees (or learners) use the K-word, you know the organisation (or family) has failed to deal with the early warnings – disrespect, negative comments, cliques, us-versus-them talk.
4. Talk about it often
A value is not a value (a ‘way we do business’) until it becomes embedded in our conversations and stories and the way we interact with each other and our stakeholders. When onboarding new employees, this is one of the key policies to emphasise – it’s about relationships in and around the organisation. Respect has to become second nature to all employees in all circumstances, and it starts with you. Talk about attitudes and actions that embody your values.
5. Take employees seriously
When an employee complains about racism in any form, listen and take action. If the complainant doesn’t want you to act, persuade them to change their mind. They have information about something that could cause harm to the organisation. They have a duty to help the organisation deal with this disease. You cannot un-know what you have been told. If the behaviour later escalates, try saying ‘well, I knew about it, but the complainant didn’t want me to do anything’ to an angry union, or a CCMA commissioner.
6. Deal with it decisively
Zero tolerance means just that. Failure to act makes nonsense of a zero-tolerance policy and encourages disrespect and mistrust all round. Trust and respect are earned through the smallest of actions every day. Failure to act in the employees’ interest destroys what you have carefully created.