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Where are you really from? June 4, 2013

Posted by Sneha Khilay - Blue Tulip Training in Uncategorized.
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  • 3469298740_161b349163_s       I recently presented at the European Equality and Diversity Conference in Vienna. Whilst sightseeing, I would approach people, mainly to ask for directions. Their first immediate response was to ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ to which I would respond from UK. We would then exchange further pleasantries and I would head towards my destination following their directions.

    When asked in UK ‘Where are you from?’ my response is ‘I live in Hertfordshire’. What often makes me feel uncomfortable is when I am then probed with ‘where are you really from?’  I consider UK to be my home and interpret the follow up question to mean, you are not from here, you don’t belong……. The discomfort is further exacerbated when I am then complimented on my accent free English.

    At the various training sessions that I have conducted, I have noticed a divide in the response from participants. Often the white participants have indicated a genuine interest, a friendly conversation-opener when asking ‘where are you from?’ Some however conceded that they would not ask this question unless the person was Black/Asian or the person spoke with a strong accent. By contrast some of the black and Asian participants admitted that they abhor this question as it clearly implies that their origin is from elsewhere and that they belong to another country, a subtle rhetorical reminder of their excluded status.

    Whilst taking into consideration that the spirit and context in which the question is asked could  be with friendly interest, let us examine the context in which this question is often received. Michael, a black man, in his mid 50s, has had several experiences of being shouted at in the street and being told to’go back to where you come from’. He therefore feels anxious when asked where is he from especially as he has experienced a barrage of ‘you don’t belong here, what are you doing here, you are taking over our country’ etc. Second and third generation British citizens of different ethnicity find the question irritating as well as irrelevant as the question seems to imply a convenient way to categorise – being placed in a group that is separate from the British identity. For some, this question becomes a reminder that the identity of being ‘the other’, not British, is highlighted.

    Jasmine who describes herself of Mixed Race/Ethnicity felt that the question, ‘where are you from?’ indicates that she is living in a country that is warmly embracing different cultures and that the question was asked to build rapport and find a common ground. Jasmine considers that given the many travel opportunities now available, people are simply inquiring whether they have visited her country of origin and if this is the case, stories are shared. Mina, proud to declare that she is from India, readily shares information about being Indian and indeed finds companionship from those who are interested in her background.

    As for me, I am proud of where I was born and my country of origin. However I am selective in how I share the circumstances under which I came to the UK. My personal story to how I arrived in Britain is precious, and despite having lived in the UK for most of my life, I remain cautious of being misunderstood or for my background to be regarded simply as entertaining conversation.

    Whilst it is worth considering that a person could be asking the question for the first time, the recipient most likely has had this question addressed several times. On some occasions, the question is asked under the guise of being interested only on the basis of their ethnic background and for no other reason. It is worth reflecting on the need to ask this question and to acknowledge that by asking this question, some recipients feel obliged to define their identity whilst taking responsibility for your curiosity. I would rather tell where I am ‘really’ from when I am ready and want to share this information.

    ‘Oh yeah, I hate this question, I get it a lot especially after emphasising the correct way to pronounce my name. The response I get is oh I noticed your accent….. I speak with a Yorkshire accent.


What’s in a name May 1, 2013

Posted by Sneha Khilay - Blue Tulip Training in Uncategorized.

‘What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’  William Shakespeare.

I recently conducted a bullying and harassment investigation for a large organisation.  I interviewed a witness who, despite being told my name both by email and at the start of the meeting, asked if she could call me ‘Mary’. I must confess, given the serious nature of the interview, I was surprised and rather uncomfortable at this request.

Generally, I am in awe of the multicultural aspect of the UK.  However, the witness’s response made me question whether we have made as much progress around diversity as we like to believe.  I recall, when at school over 35 years ago, that during registration there would routinely be heavy pauses as teachers tried to read my name and then state ‘the girl with the foreign name that I can’t be bothered to pronounce’.  This was also aligned with a stream of awkward corrections as teachers tried to pronounce my name, to which their main response was ‘Why can’t we call you ‘Sue’; it would make our life so much easier?’

Fast forward 35 years, into a new century and the exciting world of technological advancement allowing greater connection world-wide. Yet, in December 2012, the all party parliamentary group on race and community published a study showing that women who ‘whitened’ or ‘anglicised’ their names on job applications sent only half as many job applications before being invited for interview. (Guardian, 12 April 2013)

What is the trigger of discomfort, this resistance to foreign names?  Whilst we indulge in celebrities’ giving their children unusual (and some might consider them outlandish) names, for instance Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter Apple, David Beckham’s daughter, Harper 7, do we resort to past patterns of experience to create, even insist on familiarity because it provides some form of safety?

Mohammed Siddique*, a well established and successful entrepreneur, made a conscious decision to anglicise his name.  He explained that, given he had adapted his dress, his accent and even his diet to be accepted in Britain, it seemed only logical to adapt his name to overcome hurdles, get results and be successful.  His established clients admitted that they would not have contemplated doing business with companies whose MD had such a foreign-sounding name.

Mohammed acknowledged that he was weary of the negative, terrorist-related connotations around his names, especially in airports; so much so that he is now considering changing his name by deed poll.  Does this mean that some immigrants have needed to anglicise, adapt or even ditch their foreign sounding names despite living in an evolving, multicultural Britain and its heavy focus on equality legislation?

I am aware that, amongst friends and colleagues, there is a dichotomy about changing names.  Some believe that having an ethnic and /or unusual name limits their recruitment opportunities and career progression.  Others believe strongly that the solution to this problem of latent, subliminal bias in recruitment and promotion is to take authority and anglicise their name.  Others change their names simply to fit in, acknowledging that their foreign name is hard to pronounce and it is therefore more convenient and sociable to adapt their name or create a nickname to which their peers can warmly respond to.

It is common knowledge that Barack Obama used ‘Barry’ rather than his birth name whilst at college.  One colleague acknowledged that her family changed their surname to an anglicised spelling, as they had been living in UK for some years and wanted to be fully integrated into the society which they had become part of.  She added that, had the changes to her name been imposed on her, she would have felt resentful.

There are a number of communities, for instance, Jewish Refugees during WW2, Poles shortly afterwards and, more recently, those coming from Iran, China, India, and Africa who, as a coping mechanism, have assigned easy to pronounce, anglicised names whilst retaining traditional ethnic names for their family and communities.

On the flip side, many feel strongly that, by changing their name, they are negating their sense of self, betraying their culture and eradicating an important part of their ethnic identity, that too only in favour of social convenience.  Others believe that anglicising their name would be a mockery, a sense of contempt of their identity.  Their argument is that names can be broken down into short syllables and colleagues can get used to unusual names after repeating it a few times, just like learning any other new word.  One friend said she could not bear to be insulted with the term ‘coconut’ – white on the inside and brown on the outside were she to anglicise her name and not be true to her roots and origins.

Fundamentally this is about choices.  It is apparent that – not just in the UK – but in other parts of the world, there is a degree of contempt and prejudice against ethnic minorities.  The issue is whether people choose to change their name, to get their foot in the door, whatever that door represents.  Is there a willingness to take time to explain and understand the correct pronunciation of their name, perhaps its meaning and facilitating a productive conversation with the peers in the process?  In the situation with the witness, whether her reasons were; fear, ignorance, anxiety or even lack of effort, she indicated an indifference about my name and wanted to impose a name familiar to her but not right for me.  The crippling aspects of indifference, negative judgement or even apathy – an ‘I can’t be bothered’, attitude leaves me wondering if British organisations, despite advancements in equality legislation, are taking one step forward and two steps back if there are in favour of only British-sounding names.

‘If you acknowledge my name you pay me a subtle compliment, you indicate that I have made an impression on you.  Acknowledge my name and you add to my feeling important’.  Adapted from Dale Carnegie’s Quote.

‘Our job as recruiters is to send what we deem to be the right CV to our clients.  If I put forward a candidate with an unusual or a foreign name, 90% of the time I will hear nothing.  When there are 300 CVs to go through any foreign name is likely to be deleted without even being opened.  We feel dreadful about it but essentially it is a matter of time saving’.  Guardian April 12 2013

‘My name has 14 letters.  When I graduated, the university took time to ring my parents to ask how my name should be pronounced at the ceremony. It was really nice of the university, we were all (pleasantly) shocked.  People are usually just too ignorant to make the effort’.  Quote from Student Forum

*Names have been changed

Need to be Liked Syndrome March 4, 2013

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Most of us acknowledge that our upbringing, education, experiences and even religious background and beliefs provide us with perspectives that shape us.  Our perspectives become our values – what is important and acceptable to us.  In turn this affects our behaviour and how we interact with others.  What about situations when you get caught up in what I call ‘Need to be Liked Syndrome’ and behave in a manner that causes you discomfort but nonetheless continue to do so, whilst losing sight of strongly held values / perspectives? 

Amir works for a large, well known accountancy firm.  His team culture is to unwind with drinks on a Friday evening, to catch up informally on topical, work-related issues.  Amir feels uncomfortable about going to the pub, because he doesn’t like to be in an environment that serves alcohol; it also means that he can’t attend Mosque for Friday prayers.  However, Amir feels that, if he doesn’t go, he won’t get informal updates about organisational changes, potential promotion opportunities and so on.  Amir believes that, if he did not attend the Friday evening drinks, he will feel excluded by his colleague and managers and so kept out of the loop.  So he continues to behave in a manner which is in conflict with his beliefs and values… 

Although we live in a multi cultural society and numerous large organisations wave the Diversity banner with pride (and a degree of smugness?) parading ‘ We’ve got it right; Our staff have been trained: Our policies emphasise valuing Diversity and Our (large) HR department promotes equality’, the ‘Need to be Liked’ Syndrome can still lurk uncomfortably in the organisation’s corridors.  People fear that, if they stray from the norms of their team, department or organisation they will, however subtly, be criticised and / or excluded in some way.  By failing to live up to these (perceived?) social norms and standards, the fear of ‘being excluded’ by others means that we sometimes behave in ways that do not align with our core values. 

Some colleagues feel the need to base their work lives on the tacit acceptance of their colleagues.  This may be someone gay who tolerates homophobic comments or an older colleague working in an office where ageist comments are the norm.  The principles behind this thinking and behaviour is that it important to be part of a group, have a sense of belonging, be included in the hub of information.  This eventually drives people to look, behave and sound like everyone else even though this is at odds with who they feel themselves to be.  

“We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others, that in the end, we become disguised to ourselves.”  

François de La Rochefoucauld   

And what about managers who observe other managers behaving in a manner that goes against their moral compass?  One (Junior) Manager told me recently that he has noticed one of his Senior Partners sexually harass younger, female administrators. The Junior Manager, although uncomfortable, felt paralysed about saying anything about this to the Senior Partner in question.  The Junior Manager was candid and told me his internal conflict was to the point of anguish as he wanted to maintain a good relationship and impression with the Senior Partner – to continue to be liked.  As a result of not saying anything, he struggled with the fact that he was acting against his integrity and was not true to his beliefs and values.  The Junior Manager was also aware of redundancies in the pipeline and, at this critical stage, did not want to risk jeopardising his job.  He summed up his situation as ‘Being worried about being liked can be a lonely path, but trying to fit in and knowing in your heart that you don’t is a long and gruesome road’.  

We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.  ~André Berthiaume, Contretemps    

The pressure to be liked, included and accepted by a dominant group is not inherently an adult phenomenon.  The need to be liked at work, and not to be seen as so different that the key decision makers will heave an exasperated sigh can be an emotional drama causing distress or detachment.   

Those who are sensitive about being excluded can suffer if they are not part of every discussion, gathering, after work drinks outing.  Some may even get to the point that they hold their colleagues hostage for their hurt feelings.  The need to be liked, albeit for the wrong reasons, needs to be balanced against the notion that ‘If you’re not there, your colleagues / managers may just cheerfully move onwards – and upwards – without you’.  The fears – and repercussions – of being professionally excluded, can hurt and cause scars, which can take a long time to heal. 

“We hang on to our values, even if they seem at times tarnished and worn; even if, as a nation and in our own lives, we have betrayed them more often that we care to remember. What else is there to guide us?  Those values are our inheritance, what makes us who we are as a people.  And, although we recognize that they are subject to challenge, can be poked and prodded and debunked and turned inside out by intellectuals and cultural critics, they have proven to be both surprisingly durable and surprisingly constant across classes, and races, and faiths, and generations.  We can make claims on their behalf, so long as we understand that our values must be tested against fact and experience, so long as we recall that they demand deeds and not just words.”  Barack Obama



Judgemental January 22, 2013

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judgeI was asked to coach Mary (not her real name), a senior manager.  A staff member in her team, Manpreet, had raised a formal complaint against Mary as she had asked him, in an open-plan office, why he needed to wear a turban.  Mary had queried whether it was essential for Manpreet to follow the tradition of his culture and religion, given that he was born and brought up in the UK.

During our coaching sessions, Mary explained that she was mortified that Manpreet had considered it necessary to raise a formal complaint about this, especially as she often stated in team meetings that she strived to be ‘non judgemental’.  Her rationale for this comment to Manpreet about his turban was that she would consider it unusual to find a Scot wearing a kilt in Malaysia and also because, in France, the law does not allow people to display religious affiliations through attire.

I reflected on Mary’s comments about being ‘non judgemental’ and her explanation that she was merely curious about Manpreet wearing a turban.  However by starting the conversation with ‘Why he needed…?’ Manpreet felt that he had to justify his wearing a turban. Mary’s question, asked out of interest, was perceived by Manpreet to be an insult as he subsequently raised a complaint about this.

Collins Essential English defines ‘judgemental’ as: Inclined to make a judgement, denoting an attitude in which judgement about other people are made’.  One thesaurus defines it as ‘the synonyms for judgemental are all negative in connotation and include condemnatory, self righteous, censorious and critical’.

Intrusive and intimate questions are sometimes asked to those perceived as ‘different’. These questions, a mechanism for the questioner to clarify assumptions about the ‘different person’, risk becoming a get out clause of ‘but I am curious’ if offence is taken.   The perception is, If I am genuinely interested in this man, why can’t I ask how many lovers he has had because he is gay? Why can’t I ask this woman if she lives in an extended family because she said she had an arranged marriage?  Why can’t I ask someone with hearing problems ‘So what is it like not being able to appreciate music?  Etc.

But, does the fear of being perceived or labelled as judgemental mean that people cannot or should not ask questions of each other or share opinions?  If a person’s opinion is formed by their values, beliefs and the culture to which they belong, the declaration of this opinion, considered as acceptable in one culture, could be seen as offensive by others from different cultures.

A white British colleague has a traditional Chinese name; her parents liked its meaning. This colleague explained that others naturally assume she is Chinese.  However on meeting her and realising that she isn’t, she regularly faces ‘Oh you’re English, how come you have a Chinese name?’, or ‘You’re not what I expected’ or even ‘I’m so disappointed that you’re not Chinese as I wanted to understand Eastern philosophy’.

I recognised that, for this colleague, having had to explain the background to her name countless times, she felt weary and frustrated that her perceived difference became a focal point and she was expected to take responsibility for sorting out others’ assumptions about her name.    She preferred for colleagues to wait until she was ready to explain the background to her name rather than them knocking on her ‘door of difference’, each knock representing a ‘Why?  Huh… Why?…  Voltaire quotes  ‘Judge a person by their questions rather than their answers’.

In essence, these sorts of comments and questions trigger emotions in the recipient.  When opinions, based on limited facts or knowledge, are raised, often with an unspoken expectation that these opinions will be clarified by the recipient, irrespective of whether or not they want to.  It should be said that forming an opinion is not necessarily being judgemental; the judgemental element implies a condemnation of the other, an expectation that others should either live by your chosen standards or to explain or even justify why this is not the case.

In any dialogue where ‘difference’ is an issue, what is key is whether the questioner / initiator, by telling the truth, being curious or showing genuine interest, shows any judgemental disapproval that hurts or distresses the other person.  It is also worth identifying whether anything positive is gained by such a dialogue.  If hurt / distress or negativity are likely to result, then the curiosity, the interest in people ideology needs to be scrutinised rigorously.

From the examples given, it seems logical, appropriate and perhaps even necessary to wait until someone with an apparent difference is the right frame of space/mind and so ready to discuss and explain their differences (as opposed to asking questions which seem out of context to the receiver).  This was clearly the case for Mary and her apparent expectation that Manpreet, living in UK, should not be wearing a turban and should readily respond to her questions, irrespective of whether he was ready to do so.

Key issues to consider are:

In what context am I asking this question?

How would I feel if a stranger, simply because they were curious, asked me to explain my dress sense, my name, my way of living etc?

Are having my questions answered beneficial to me, to the other person and /or to our relationship? What are the consequences / implications and possible repercussions of asking (or not asking) this question?


We judge others by their behaviour. We judge ourselves by our intentions.

Acknowledge, Accept or Participate? December 10, 2012

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shaking handsAt Diwali recently, I came home and, to my delight, discovered that my neighbours, who are not Hindu, had gone to the trouble of buying a Diwali card for me. By this thoughtful gesture, the very same neighbours to whom I occasionally wave and exchange a word or two of pleasantries  have been transformed into neighbours ‘who care’.

I reflected on the impact of this gesture – a small difference that made a big difference.  I understood that my neighbours had gone beyond acknowledging or even just accepting to participating in my life.  Whilst they may not have the usual Diwali related paraphernalia, they were nevertheless celebrating Diwali. My neighbours’ active participation was no different to sending a friend a birthday card; not just ‘acknowledging’ but actually celebrating someone’s special day.

I am convinced that our greatest strength as human beings is our ability to adapt and participate to different and new situations.  I recently attended a Black History Month show at my local theatre.  The audience, though diverse, was represented mainly by African Caribbean communities.  Some acts included jokes (which I didn’t understand) that had the audience howling with laughter.  Friends later asked if I felt excluded by these jokes which might be difficult to ‘translate’ to someone not raised in a particular culture.

I realised that I hadn’t felt excluded at the show – I hadn’t gone to accept all aspects of African Caribbean culture; rather, I was participating in a culture made authentic by its differences.  It was a fantastic event and I felt privileged to have been involved in another culture.  It has been said that jokes represent how people living in UK, but originating elsewhere, classify and represent their experiences and I could see that this was so.

Britain is renowned for, and indeed celebrates, being a multi-cultural country.  Wikipedia describes ‘multicultural’ as immigrants / others preserving their cultures within different cultures interacting peacefully within one nation’.  Kevin Bloor writes (The Definitive Guide to Political Ideologies) of multiculturalism as a society “at ease with the rich tapestry of human life and the desire amongst people to express their identity in the manner they see fit’.

The slow, steady effect of promoting diversity has led to a ‘step beyond’ – the interaction between cultures providing opportunities for participation within different cultures.  Lord Macpherson’s 1999 Report considered a revised national school curriculum to promote cultural diversity and help prevent racism,  Schools have actively promoted religious celebrations for some years, resulting in a well informed (in this at least) younger generation who are more comfortable with cultural / religious beliefs and / or celebrations.  For this generation, many of whom have friends and / or partners from other backgrounds, they are able to participate rather than simply acknowledging and accepting others.  Some of this has – to those willing to take an interest – extended to their parents.  A senior manager told me a few years ago that his children were teaching him about different faiths as they understood Diwali, Eid and Hanukkah far more than him.  He envied his children’s exposure to the richness of difference.

Large supermarkets (Tesco, Asda and others) recognise, in addition to permanently providing say kosher foods, the benefit of Hanukkah / Eid / Diwali designated aisles.  Whilst cynics may argue that this is ‘all about the money’ and designed to maximise profits by enticing minority groups into their shops, these large retailers, irrespective of the intention, have gone beyond the ‘acknowledge, accept’ model to participating in these celebrations of differences.

When I was a child, Diwali was celebrated behind closed doors and not discussed in the playground, I already felt (and was) different, and didn’t want to emphasise this by talking about my home life. I now do feel that Britain is ‘my home’ and that I am welcome here.  I can buy whatever I want from a supermarket and am greeted by a sales assistant with a lapel badge saying ‘Happy Diwali!’

At work, there is the generosity of colleagues explaining their own, and participating in other cultures – Muslim colleagues inviting colleagues to an Eid party,  a Hindu colleague explaining the intricacies of being introduced to prospective parties and Gay colleagues discussing the importance of Gay Pride week. The team ethos of genuine interest/participation in the different cultures promotes respect and trust.

These levels of participation has liberated individuals, groups and communities and given them confidence to express their authenticity fully; this allows them to truly and wholeheartedly express their differences.

Ruth Benedict described, as far back as 1934, cultural behaviour as a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action.  Within each culture, there come into being characteristics purposes not necessarily shared by other groups.   Benedict argued that, over time, these patterns change as a consequence of human creativity.  The (inter) participation of different cultures creates a ground of hope and promotes an equally, culturally enriched coexistence.

Life is not just a series of calculations and a sum total of statistics, it’s about experience, it’s about participation, it is something more complex and more interesting that what is obvious…

‘I embrace emerging experience, I participate in discovery, I am a butterfly, I am not a butterfly collector, I want the experience of the butterfly’ William Stafford

Changing Perceptions October 1, 2012

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During a regular visit to my local building society, a staff member – Stacey – who had always treated me with the utmost respect and courtesy asked if I had conducted a presentation to a class of 10 year olds some time ago.  I responded that I had.

I recalled that I told the children about the meaning of Diwali (the Indian festival of light) and had taken saris for the girls to try on as well as bindis (small stick on jewels) for the girls to stick on their foreheads.  I had also explained how families celebrate Diwali and distributed Indian sweets to the whole class whilst explaining their symbolism.

Stacey explained that, although it was over ten years ago, she recalls the presentation in detail and told me that it was one of her favourite and most memorable days at school.  Stacey added that by being exposed to this different perspective, it changed her perception of different cultures / ways of living.  Her behaviour changed as a direct result of my presentation, to put it simply she recognises that everyone she meets has an interesting story to share and she treats them accordingly.

By contrast, a white colleague candidly shared that her 80 year old aunt is so racist that, when handed change by a Black shop assistant, she insists on them putting the change on the counter (rather than into her hand) in case they touch her.  My colleague, who is genuinely committed to promoting diversity, explained that not only does she find her aunt’s behaviour embarrassing, she continues to be frustrated that, despite repeatedly explaining the concept of ‘respect for differences’ to her aunt in a way that she will understand, she nonetheless continues to behave in this blatantly discriminatory manner. My colleague feels horribly self conscious when she is shopping with her aunt as, at times, shop assistants look at her and seem to assume that she supports her aunt’s behaviour when this is very far from the truth.

You can argue that someone who was 10 in 1999 would have relatively different or greater exposure to cultural differences compared against an 80 year old woman who has lived some of her life when there was rationing and / or shortages of food, goods and jobs.  She may well have been exposed to resentment voiced by family, friends, media, etc that (Black) immigrants would take jobs and, as a result, be able to buy the scarce goods and food which might prevent her from doing the same.

So, do different attitudes  evolve from exposure to differences and through a willingness to change one’s own perception? Is this a key to promoting equality and respect?  There are many challenges when dealing with someone who portrays different behaviours and values.  However, a willingness to consider the ‘other’ with authenticy is fundamental.  Engagement with others within the frame of right time, right environment, and right circumstances is important and necessary for successfully changing perceptions. This is best done by building an understanding and acknowledging the different types of ‘norms’ at play in a given situation.  Through this process, and by taking responsibility to be aware and reflect, helps build a bridge between different experiences and expectations.  Where appropriate, honest discussions with trusted colleagues are important, the alternative to this being the danger of stereotyping as a result of not discussing differences and one’s attitude to others.

I recalled a training session when a participant was dismissive of the plight of asylum seekers and refugees.  Her attitude was ‘They are leeching on us’, ‘Surely it can’t be that bad in their country,’ etc.  Despite being introduced to different perspectives by me (and other participants), she contacted me later and emphasised that she had discussed this issue with her friends, who colluded with her perspective and agreed that the evidence-based explanation given during the training session was false, biased and subjective.  In effect, she sought like-minded people to reinforce her stance and maintain her discriminatory attitude.  She was unwilling to consider, never mind acknowledge the perspective of, the ‘other’.

 The bridge building process / overcoming barriers requires a conscientious responsibility to be aware and a willingness to change one’s attitudes.  However, there is a fear of the reaction of people like the above participant having a volcanic effect – simmering beneath the surface but erupting en masse in a collective response, as evidenced during the World Cup in Ukraine when blatantly racist attitudes was displayed by groups of supporters.

Tackling assumptions and acknowledging attitudes is a powerful agent for change.  There is an old saying that you cannot understand someone else unless you have ‘walked a mile in their shoes’.  By having the enthusiasm and open mindedness to be exposed to, and be in wonder of, differences, we can move away from a polarised, pejorative debate on the lines of ‘Others are less than me because they are not like me’.

There are children playing in the street who could solve key problems because they have a model of perception, of wonder and awe that I lost long ago.  J Robert Oppenheimer

Image by Paulo Zerbato – Fine Art America

Zero Tolerance – A Seductive Concept? July 30, 2012

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During a training session, one of my participants, who was a ‘Litter Enforcement Officer’, told me that he has to follow a ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy.  As soon as he sees someone throw litter on the street, the person concerned is immediately fined £75.  The fine is applied irrespective of whether the person apologies profusely (or not) or goes to great lengths to pick up the litter in question.

With the example above, the Zero Tolerance is obvious; someone drops litter, they are fined – no ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’ and certainly no ‘pleases’.  Various organisations such as the NHS, schools, colleges and public transport all brand Zero Tolerance as a badge of honour and a mechanism for setting boundaries.  But what does this really mean in practice?  How would you explain this to, say, Mrs Smith who’s 78 and who asks the question?

Zero Tolerance can only be achieved by knowing where we stand, with a clear direction and ongoing discussions which can be backed up by a moral and ethical code.  To put simply to ‘do no harm’ with your attitude, and  use of your   body/verbal language.

There are various thoughts about tolerance, for instance that no one should ever know of ‘the tyranny of your heart’, that one should tolerate others’ behaviour as long as it does no harm.  However, what are the limits of tolerance?  Does one define the concept of harm to include subjective harm?  So, from Mrs Smith’s point of view, is there an unwillingness to debate, argue or make a strong point in case it is perceived as harmful?  Interestingly, some elderly people consider themselves to be beyond reprimand in terms of their attitudes to others.  Is it worth applying the principles of Zero Tolerance to them?

A colleague told me that, on entering a bus recently, he realised to his dismay that he had lost his monthly, pre-paid bus pass and did not have any change.  When he attempted to explain this to the bus driver, the driver’s response was to harangue him publicly, whilst telling him he does not have to put up with the public arguing with him because the bus company has a Zero Tolerance Policy.   It seems that the driver was using ‘Zero Tolerance Policy as a ‘get out clause’; an excuse to not listen to a customer whilst undermining him publicly.  This  example clearly shows how Zero Tolerance of the customer’s reasonable behaviour was perceived as aggression and became an absurdity because ultimately it encouraged further aggression to end it.

Zero Tolerance is about treating others with respect and dignity; but what are the implications for practice?  Zero Tolerance means that organisations need to deal seriously with unacceptable behaviour and take appropriate action.  As seductive as it may seem, Zero Tolerance is fundamentally about curbing rude, aggressive behaviour and alleviating fear.  Although the aim is to tackle unacceptable behaviour firmly, right from the outset, is there too much focus on seemingly trivial, possibly annoying but petty behaviour?  Does this approach sap people’s enthusiasm for responding appropriately to unacceptable behaviour?  On the other hand, police advisors advocate that, by dealing with ‘unruly’ behaviour early and promptly, standards of what is or is not acceptable can be set more effectively.

Although Zero Tolerance smacks of policing rather thanmanaging behaviour, within the context of a given situation, it should also be about supporting and guiding individuals towards appropriate behaviour rather than always enforcing this through some form of discipline or sanction.  However, the fact remains that there has to be a cut off point: ‘That’s it.  Enough’.

Fundamentally, Zero Tolerance Policy has to be applied with intelligence, common sense and discretion.  Spending an inordinate amount of time, energy and money without achieving positive, long term outcomes will turn the concept into a mockery and alienate people into the process.  However, it is worth considering that when Zero Tolerance rules are applied to others, we applaud, but when the same rules are applied to us, we consider it unfair…

Is it funny? June 1, 2012

Posted by Sneha Khilay - Blue Tulip Training in Uncategorized.

With legislative changes and controversy surrounding ‘political correctness‘, managers ask: What about workplace banter and jokes?  Have we have become so clinical and sterile that, with the slightest whiff of what could be construed as an offensive’ word or joke,  Staff and managers  rush for cover… under the hail of,   “You shouldn’t / can’t say that”, “It’s not allowed”, “You should know better”  “You are in trouble”…

This risks creating a work culture where jokes and banter are no longer permissible in case they offend someone.Worse still, will office humour be reduced to ‘knock knock’ jokes (though these can sometimes be considered as offensive if too childish)?

I am increasingly aware that many jokes have a discriminatory element. I have noticed more minority ethnic comedians, (male and female) who make jokes about themselves and their background – often with an exaggerated accent – to emphasise their point.  Is it acceptable for the audience, whether at a show or at work, to ‘join in’ and / or approve deprecating comments by laughing at them?

On the one hand, laughing at jokes relating to racial characteristics when racism goes unchallenged maintains a stereotype thereby reinforcing racism.  Alternately, it could be argued that, by making us aware of our prejudices, we are challenged to change our views.  There is a very fine line between exploring taboos and perpetuating prejudices which the best comedians manage to walk.

What about a comedian or a colleague sharing their experience of racism / sexism etc by turning it into a joke?  This could be interpreted as a coping mechanism – a way of denying the pain / hurt or asserting that ‘I can rise above this’, by choosing to laugh at the foolishness of a comment / act.

What about jokes to ‘build rapport’ or ‘break the ice’?  I recently arrived 15 minutes late at a meeting, as I’d got lost.  One Director made a stereotypical comment about ‘women drivers’.  Given that this was my first meeting with the individual concerned I sensed that this was a – rather clumsy – attempt to be friendly, I didn’t challenge the comment as it didn’t feel right to do so. It would make it difficult to build rapport. That said, I was (uncomfortably) conscious that my silence could be interpreted as condoning his statement.

Over the years I seem to have developed a ‘sliding scale’ so that some comments – like ‘women drivers’ are ‘towards acceptable’ and not worth challenging whereas others, like a warning bell, demand an immediate response.  Does this mean that, when a negative comment, for instance about women drivers,  is made repeatedly,  over time, it becomes acceptable?  Further, should colleagues / managers, irrespective of the nature of the joke, ‘humour’ or ‘challenge’ the comment? What about when a person apologies immediately after making the joke that has a discriminatory undertone?   Some managers have told me it leaves them with a dilemma whether they should take any further action in such cases…

There is a time and place for satire – the therapeutic value of humour has long been recognised.  And humour helps people to bond, especially when dealing with difficult situations.  However, whether or not you find a joke funny, because at the most basic level, jokes are personal, your reaction is ‘correct’.  You either laugh or you don’t.  As they say, “One person’s sense of humour is another’s insult.”

The Roman thinker, Cicero, thought jokes exhibiting refinement and cleverness could win over an audience.  But it’s easy to make the mistake of being vulgar or inappropriate when trying to be funny.  Jokes should come from genuine respect of different cultures, rather than an intention to degrade or humiliate.

A motivational speaker, speaking in Japan, had his speech translated as he spoke.  He told some elaborate jokes, which he feared would not translate well.  To his delight and surprise, the audience laughed hysterically at every joke.  As he left, the speaker congratulated the translator on his brilliant rendering of subtle English humour and asked “How did you manage to get all those jokes?” “Oh, I didn’t bother,” the translator replied. “I just said, ‘he is making joke now, please laugh’.”


If it ain’t broke, why fix it? April 30, 2012

Posted by Sneha Khilay - Blue Tulip Training in Uncategorized.
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I was recently invited to conduct a half day training session on Equality and Diversity for a charity that provides support to the homeless. The manager from the local office sheepishly admitted that they have recently appointed a (first) black woman to join the team. On making the announcement of the appointment, the manager noticed some raised eyebrows and tutting from some of her team members and decided that her team could benefit from Equality and Diversity training.

I was surprised that the manager even needed to announce the race of the newly appointed staff member. However I was equally concerned about the lack of previous appointments of staff from a black and minority ethnic background and the negative response from some of the staff members. The irony being that the community the charity serves has a diverse ethnic mix.  The manager acknowledged that the organisation hadn’t needed to look at Equality and Diversity matters in the past as it was considered not necessary. I got the sense that she was implying ‘if it ain’t broke, why fix it?’

The value and pressure of providing evidence of equality into practice has been high on organisational and media agenda for over 12 years, especially after the Macpherson Report. This initiated the legal compliance for public sector authorities to prove that equality measures have been considered for implementation. Whilst I was not all together surprised by the request from the manager, I was certainly troubled that in this day and age this type of attitude from colleagues continues in the work environment with no discourse of responsibility and accountability.

So what would it take to ‘fix it’ when the general consensus in the organisation seems to ‘but there is nothing wrong’? To put it simply, we ensure that our cars are serviced regularly, a legal requirement for the car to pass its MOT, we nonetheless still  check that our cars are  in working order and more importantly safe to drive on the roads. In effect, by regularly servicing our cars, we aim to prevent the costs (and hassle) of expensive repairs and parts. So why is that organisations are not being proactive enough not just with Diversity ‘MOT’ checks but ensuring that staff, service users, contractors, stakeholders etc feel valued, respected, included and more importantly acknowledged?

It was obvious from its website that the charity has included equality and diversity as one of its underpinning values. What seems to be apparent is that senior management or indeed policy officers had not managed to change the mindset of its employees or modified the organisational culture. So whilst equality and diversity can and should be embraced at the top, it seemed as if managers grapple with how to actually manage the process. Some then take on the persona of; why bother, I have bigger issues to deal with, such as redundancies, budgetary restrictions etc’. Often managers do not promote, explore or discuss equality and diversity issues in their teams because they have not been asked to do so – this however should not be an excuse to avoid the issue.

IBM started its Diversity initiatives as early as 1960s, over 50 years ago. The emphasis on diversity continues to this day with managers scrupulously and continually striving to look at new initiatives and processes to ensure that equality, diversity and inclusion are maintained as the underpinning principles of IBM’s culture, ethos, values and practices. Its offices in Egypt are an excellent example. IBM provides female colleagues with drivers to facilitate women to work at IBM thus tap into an almost neglected source of talent.

It’s absolutely necessary to look at the ‘what if’ scenarios, not to a paralytic point, but at a healthy level. Innovation and creativity is derived by having different ideas and concepts which guide to better decision making processes.

Learning to accept the diversity and uniqueness of each employee will in turn generate feelings of trust and respect that could further lead to more productivity among employees, higher morale in the workplace and less conflicts and the time involve resolving them. Diversity is a fact of life. Learning to deal with it effectively and not fight it is the best way to advance the causes of business.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it is the slogan of the complacent, the arrogant or the scared. It’s an excuse for inaction – Colin Powell 

Generally people believe that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Engineers believe that if it ain’t broke, it doesn’t have enough features…..yet.

Playing the Race Card March 28, 2012

Posted by Sneha Khilay - Blue Tulip Training in Uncategorized.

Media, political campaigns and organisations have been outraged by the concept of ‘playing the race card’, while the general public has reacted to it with exasperation, disbelief, or sheer indifference.

What does it mean, ‘playing the race card’? Figuratively, the reference is made to the power of play in card games in which a trump card may be used to gain an advantage. Wikipedia defines it as’ an idiomatic phrase referring to an allegation raised against a person who has brought the issue of race or racism into a debate, perhaps to obfuscate the matter.’

The phrase can be linked to the following four broad contexts:

  • Deliberately and falsely accusing another person of being racist in order to gain some form of advantage. For instance, a manager is aware of a staff member, from a minority ethnic background, of being consistently late. On broaching her about her timekeeping, the staff members responds with the comment -‘you are only picking on me because of my race.’
  • Managers getting into the danger of overcompensating for inappropriate behaviour or poor performance, giving more leeway to the individual concerned just in case the staff member brings out the ‘race card’. Fear of being labelled ‘racist’ has become so abhorrent that managers are under tremendous pressure to promote inclusivity. Managers also feel anxious that if they are accused of being racist, others might actually believe this to be true.
  • It is used as a tool to exploit prejudice against another race for political or some other disadvantage. This is playing to racist fears. For example, when political campaigners in US ran an advertisement, intended as a criticism of the idea of fulfilling racial quotas, that showed a black man taking a white man’s job, the general public interpreted this as playing to racists fears amongst white voters.
  • The phrase has become a rhetorical devise, used simply to devalue and minimise genuine claims of racism.

Fundamentally the overarching question in any situation where the race card is allegedly being played is ‘did racism actually occur?’ Policies, procedures and changes in legislation have become effective protective measures against spurious or unreasonable claims or assertions. In that sense the policies are an attempt to put into place a set of requirements about appropriate behaviour and standards. If people with different cultural and historical perspectives are working together, every employee – from front line workers to CEO – should have the ability to reflect on their actions and behaviour to ensure that everyone they interact with is treated fairly and equally.

Whatever the performance or the wrong doing of the individual concerned, any assertion of racism must be taken seriously and a decision made on evidence, not just hearsay.

Playing the race card:

Outrage: No

Analysis and reflection of the circumstances: Yes.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s always worth a try…unless, of course, you have sufficient dignity, honesty and integrity to resist the impulse…

Implying ‘playing the race card’ was discrimination

In Royal Bank of Scotland PLC v Morris the EAT agreed with a tribunal’s decision that a black employee, who complained about his manager’s conduct, suffered direct discrimination when a senior manager commented without any factual basis that his complaint was about race discrimination. The comment was humiliating and based on a stereotypical assumption, and a white employee complaining about a black colleague would not have been treated in the same way.

Mr Morris is black and of African-Caribbean ethnic origin. He raised a complaint about his manager, Mr Tighe, to Mr Tighe’s manager, Mr Arnett. At a meeting, Mr Arnett, without any foundation said something to the effect that he understood Mr Morris to be alleging that Mr Tighe’s conduct towards him was connected with his race. Mr Morris denied that he had made any such allegation. He resented what he understood to be the suggestion that he was “playing the race card”.