Colleague inconsolable after hearing racial slur in workplace

Hi all,

A long time lurker but a first time poster so apologies in advance for such a difficult first question. My role in this is that I am part of the Diversity & Inclusion forum and am trying to help facilitate a better outcome for the colleague as a result of the things I'm about to explain below.

A colleague last year heard another person before the start of a working group meeting quote a racial slur. The slur was not racially motivated but was more 'I can't believe this person said they heard someone be called a n****r in the car park.'. The colleague was taken aback at hearing this and was the only BAME person in the meeting and have said that all of the others in the room (all white) dropped their heads and there was a stunned silence as they knew it was unacceptable for the word to be used even in that context but nobody including the HR reps present wanted to get involved.

The next day the colleague reported it to HR. Upon doing so they were not felt like they were treated like a human being at any point, just a process. Nobody was sympathetic to what had been heard and why it had been causing distress and instead they were asked 'What N word? I don't know what that word is.'

Eventually, after some intervention from a senior manager, it was agreed that at the next meeting it would be highlighted as a reminder at the very beginning that no form of inappropriate language, especially racially derogatory terms, should be used in the workplace. Despite the agreement, at the next meeting, the colleague felt the manner in which the HR rep raised the point was not satisfactory and was felt more like it was mentioned in passing and not at the start of the meeting as an important point. By this point, they were spent mentally of having to deal with this and chose to no longer be part of the working group because of how poorly the whole thing had been dealt with. They made an excuse that they wanted to focus on their day to day work instead to avoid having to recount the whole story again as a reason for leaving as they were already struggling with the trauma of the issue.

A year on and although the colleague had reluctantly put the issue to the back of their minds, the recent Black Lives Matter protests have brought it back to the front of mind, which is very understandable. After seeing a number of other organisations publicly pledge to support any colleagues affected by the things they've seen and heard and acknowledging the roles all businesses can play, they asked what their organisation would be doing. They were told that there was no tolerance for racist abuse in any form and anyone who has experienced anything should speak up.

Hearing this now they felt this was an opportunity to take their experience just as an example of how the organisation does seem to allow some tolerance and that more needs to be done. They had made it clear that while it was hard to dredge up the old case again as an example, it wasn't about them and this should just be used as a point of context. They had a productive conversation with a member of the senior management team around things that could be done, but then a second member of the SMT replied back to the colleague outlining the specific details of their case, which they had not asked for.

The SMT member made a number of points which outline how the incident happened before the meeting officially started and the fact that the slur was not used in a racially motivated way, and the fact that the minutes show that a reminder was given in the meeting. The colleague is under the strong impression that these points are not relevant in any way to the fact that the slur was mentioned in the workplace and that's just not acceptable and the fact that someone from the SMT thought these were points to include just goes to show just how tone-deaf the organisation really is in seeing what the problem is. I'm inclined to agree on all points given the SMT member is looking at a very human situation which involves a lot of feelings through a black and white lens which just doesn't apply that easily to something like this, but would welcome views.

The email has left such a mark on the colleague that they have been signed off work with stress and have made it clear that they are also considering leaving altogether as they don't know how they could be motivated to work for an organisation which doesn't see the issues with how this has been dealt with and what message it sends about what is OK and not OK to say. They feel like they've been treated as a process throughout and not as a human being with feelings, including the fact that even after reporting the incident and being clearly upset about it, they were never even asked if they were OK.

I have a lot of sympathy for the colleague and am not sure where to turn given I have flagged the fact that there feels like there has been multiple failings here, even if it is an isolated incident, that has been made even worse by the SMT members email which made the wounds feel fresh again and also gave the impression like they sought to diminish the colleague's version of events. The SMT members are interested to speak to the colleague again however the colleague has made it clear that it was hard enough going through all of this once last year and once again this time around, that they simply have no more energy, fight or belief that they will be properly heard without further aspersions being cast on them.

  • Welcome Barney to the active side of the communities.

    Clearly your organisation appears to have good intentions in that at least you have a D&I forum but appears not to have embraced the true meaning of what D&I is or how to help the organisation, colleagues and its senior leadership team move forward. It seems stuck at a point and probably needs help in moving forward. How effective generally is your D&I forum and what level of support. sponsorship and activity / action does it have? How genuine is your organisation about both diversity and inclusivity?

    I think I would start by educating your D&I forum on the power and impact of that word. I might get them to watch the following video which went viral a week or so ago as it addresses that point as well as sever other. (And the white committee members all looking down/embarrassed when it was said is fairly typical). I would get the Forum to look critically at itself - if it has failed one of its own members in this way how is it doing for the organisation? I would get them to renew their role and activity and to stretch themselves to make change happen - what was the last positive impact they made?