Thursday, 17 December 2009

Let he who is without prejudice cast the first aspersion.

As part of my remit, I frequently introduced Equalities and Diversity programmes into the workplace. It was rather dispiriting that, from time to time, those who complained to me that they had been the victim of racism, sexism or homophobia, were not averse to displaying a similar prejudice towards others.

“I will never get promoted in this place because I am Asian and a woman to boot”, complained one woman of Indian heritage to me. It was certainly true that the organisation in question contained cliques and if you were not part of the magic inner circle, you would never prosper regardless of ability. When American owners took over they tried to establish a meritocracy which the British middle management paid mere lip service to. Thus, whilst the American divisional head was on leave, they tried to force me to out of my post and hand it to one of their cronies. It was made clear to me that if I didn’t accept the fait accompli, I would find myself out of the organisation altogether. When the American divisional head returned from New Orleans, he was outraged. He came up to me as I was talking to a group of his managers.
“I will fight for you!” he assured me in his pronounced Southern drawl.
The British managers were unctuous in their apologies.
“We never meant you to feel that you had no choice in the matter. If you want to stay where you are that’s fine too,” they lied through gritted teeth.

I knew my card was marked from that moment on.  A year or so later on a Friday afternoon, the Americans announced to the entire workforce that they had sold the company. When I came into work on the Monday morning I found someone else sitting at my desk; the British managers had brought in an agency temp over the weekend. Now that the Americans were effectively a lame duck administration, they had no qualms about showing their hand. Consequently I could fully sympathise with my Indian colleague about the degree of
prejudice in that place.  Nonetheless, I was staggered when I heard her saying in a different context and without a shred of irony that “ALL Nigerians were crooks.”

In another job, a member of staff wanted to know whether I was aware that he had registered an official complaint against a colleague, for the latter’s alleged homophobic remarks. He wanted to know how matters were progressing and emphasised how upsetting and degrading he had found the whole experience. I promised to investigate further and he invited me over to the pub in the evening to join his male partner.
“Come over here you..” he shouted across the crowded bar, using an Anglo Saxon epithet for an exclusively female part of the anatomy. It never even dawned on him that I, as a woman might take offence at his casual use of such degrading and misogynistic language.

One man in particular ranks in my memory as being the worst example of a person refusing to recognise bigotry, unless they were on the receiving end of it. I only found out after I had accepted the assignment, that my nightmare of a colleague had been shunted from manager to manager. Finally he was off-loaded on to me, as someone with no prior knowledge of his legendary poor behaviour and performance. Management had refused to act against him in the past because he would always insist he was the innocent victim of racism. Indeed, he had taken his employers to court so often, were you to place his name into a search engine, you would discover that he has actually set a precedent in English case law. Despite always losing his case, he persisted in going back to court with each fresh affront to his delicate sensibilities.

The organisation itself was on the brink of financial disaster and had to impose stringent cutbacks. I was obliged to gather all my staff and warn them to expect redundancies. Everyone accepted the news with equanimity except for the Perpetually Outraged One (the POO).
“You are driving nails into my coffin, “ he said to me in front of the whole group. “You are lucky I don’t have a gun to shoot you with,” he added menacingly.
Having so many witnesses meant I knew I had not imagined his threat. Consequently, I made an official complaint and for the first time ever his behaviour in the office was challenged. Nevertheless, it was not his threats to me that ended his career. I discovered his fate some months after I had left. It seems the POO had been handing out leaflets at lunchtime, recommending that all gay people should be executed, prompting his own immediate suspension (regrettably not by the neck) and eventual sacking. I have no doubt he tried to go to an Employment Tribunal arguing that, yet again, he was the unwitting victim of prejudice. He did not so much have a beam in his eye as an entire wooden edifice.