It all started on the 12th of March with a brief conversation wherein a Partner told me a story on a Thursday morning about her and her husband sitting on the tube.
There were four ‘Asian’ men and the Partner recalled that her husband (who has respiratory issues) was concerned about Coronavirus and the Partner placated her husband as they were sat far away.
I said to them that was a pretty racist story and the Partner disagreed that her husband was racist or that the story was racist and proceeded to finish the story.
It took me until the Saturday to put the experience down into an email and flag it with our Director, the People Manager, and my own Performance Manager.
Here we are two weeks later, and I just can’t shoulder the shitty behaviour in private because it’s tiring, insidious, threatening, and unnerving.
On the 16th March, I sat down in person with the Director for an hour and we had a friendly, productive, and genuine conversation about racism, personalities, and generational attitudes to bias. The conclusion of the conversation was that I should approach the Partner for a one on one discussion. I left this conversation feeling fine, supported, and heard.
On the 18th March, I emailed the Partner and copied in the other three to flag that, having sought counsel, the determined approach was that I reach out to her and we have a discussion. I outlined the conversation that I thought was racist and how I had sought counsel, and inquired if she be open to having a conversation at a suitable time.
I sent this email feeling nervous but felt that giving the Partner a heads-up about what had gone on showed that the intention was to outline my perspective, let her know who else was involved, and keep everyone looped in as we worked towards a resolution.
This email has fast become the bone of contention and I will add that no-one responded in writing. I have had text confirmation from the Director which confirmed that the Partner and the Director read it. In conversation, the People Manager confirmed he did and so did the Performance Manager, although I can’t prove it.
On the Thursday night – the 19th of March – I had a missed call from the Director whom I called back. The conversation was friendly and supportive, and I was advised (keeping in mind the power hierarchy and how advice can be a thinly veiled order) to delete the email of the 18th March and to approach the Partner for a one-to one conversation.
I finished this conversation with my back up – being asked to delete an email made me suspicious but I trust the Director. I texted him to confirm the approach assuming that if it was at all an ‘off the record’ approach, he would not be putting it in writing.
I was wrong – he texted confirmation that I should delete the email.
The content of the phone call with the Director did surprise me as it was confirmed that the Partner had read the email and was not ‘comfortable’ responding until the email was retracted. At this point, my trust in the behaviours and process of ‘speaking up’, as my workplace was keen to encourage everyone to do, was wearing thin.
From my perspective, the conversation the Partner and I had was such a basic form of racism – Racism 101 if you will - that surely Senior Management had the tools and language to address this adequately for all parties?
How wrong was I.
I let it sit for about a week until I had a reminder from the Director, a gentle follow-up via our internal instant message system, to see if I had contacted the director. In all honesty, I was putting it off but nevertheless tried calling the Partner on the Friday night and got voicemail so we spoke on Monday via video cam.
The Partner spent the first ten minutes adding context to the story to 'de-racist' it and promptly burst into tears.
When I was able to, I addressed each of the points in turn – primarily inquiring whether she wished to have the conversation at another point, she struck me as highly vulnerable and the conversation was very emotive. She consented that she was happy to continue and described racism as ‘so abhorrent’ that she could not bring herself to use the word.
The extent to which you can therefore have an objective discussion on racism and perspective with a very senior, highly respected Partner at a Big Four Firm is therefore limited.
Particularly jarring to me, was that my email was labelled ‘accusatory’ and ‘unprofessional’.
I stayed calm and pointed out that that was not the intention of the email and I apologised for the impact that the email had had as it was categorically meant to open a discussion, not deliver a judgement.
In terms of being ‘unprofessional’, I outlined that at every step of the way, I had sought counsel which is why I had copied in the other members of the team who had advised the process.
The Partner outlined the impact of including other people into an email and writing out what had happened – the key problem here seemed to be that the experience was written down with others copied in. What concerned her was the potential impact of the story being leaked. My response was that, based on the conversation myself and the Partner had, I could consider that the intention of the story was not racist and would not perceive the Partner as racist.
I apologised for the impact that the email had had on her and outlined that I was able to see the issues from her perspective. The issue was reconciled from my perspective and I was glad for the conversation to be over.
Later, the Director follow up on the internal messaging system to see how the conversation with the Partner went and I responded that there ‘were some tears but that it was resolved’.
When discussing another piece of work on Tuesday 24th March, my Performance Manager and I caught up over the internal phone system, where I was far more frank and explained how the conversation with the Partner was and how I will never be raising any similar issue again - the whole process has been utterly bizarre. He confirmed that he was told not to say a word.
Now, the conversation on Thursday 26th really, really pissed me off.
I've had time to think it through and exercise off the sharpened intensity of the feelings so below is as balanced an account as I can recall, albeit entirely from my perspective.
Keeping in mind that although I was and am still reeling from the whole process, it’s reconciled in my opinion and – as far as I am aware – that of the Partner.
Thursday 26th of March, the People Manager reaches out and we have an hour-long conversation. I explain as honestly as possible how bizarre the conversation with the Partner was and explain that she cried – the People Manager, presumably having conversed with the Director, says something along the lines of ‘I was wondering who cried’.
And we begin to dissect it all – in my opinion - to no real benefit.
I explained how shocking it was to me to see how upset the Partner was and how she determined that the email was ‘accusatory’ and ‘black and white’ with little space for discussion.
I explained to the People Manager that there are three other people on the email chain (to this day, as I did not and will not delete it) who can and are completely welcome to respond.
I am not the definer of racism and my story does not determine the context.
The People Manager then encouraged me to think about what would have happened if the Partner had flagged me to the Ethics Board.
I said that I was perfectly comfortable in my experience of what constitutes racism and that with what had happened in the conversation, I would not have flagged it without being able to explain my perception and position, confidently and fairly.
The conversation repeatedly came back around to the email to the Partner with the others copied in.
The Performance Manager agreed that the first two steps – 1) flagging the perception of racism to the Partner and 2) seeking counsel from the Director were spot on.
The Performance Manager urged that picking up the phone was the best course of action.
I explained that I was not going to repeat my approach – speak directly to the Partner – that had been rejected in the first instance; the Partner did not consider that the story was racist, and I am not going to re-open the same conversation in the same approach for the same issue.
I needed help in starting this conversation and that was what I did when I approached the Director who approached the People Manager, who advised me to approach the Director alone.
When I explained that I would never, ever raise an issue like this again, the Performance Manager expressed disappointment. My response was to ask him to consider how I was feeling, that is to say:
I've been at a company for a year and a half, gone through the ‘Speak Up’ training on company ‘Behaviours’ and ‘Trust’.
I was shocked that a Partner would even say the things that were originally said.
The apprehension and fear in saying to a Partners face that I considered that story racist, with associated heart palpitations.
The immediate shut-down from such a powerful person.
Thinking about it for two days until saying something.
The subsequent advice from the Director to speak to the same person ‘one on one’ (read: alone).
A phone call in the evening from a Director to advise that the Partner has read the email but that the Partner would 'feel more comfortable’ if the email was retracted.
To have a one on one conversation with a very emotional and upset Partner, with stabs taken at my professional conduct and additional details added in retrospectively to de-racist the story without any objective conversation and therefore a deeper dive into perception, racism, bias, and/or the impact of our words.
Subsequently, to have the Performance Manager agree that the email should be deleted and that ‘if the shoe was on the other foot’ and I was taken to the Ethics Board, how would I feel?
I would feel fucking fine because I can recognise racism. I was repeatedly invited by the Performance Manager to consider the feelings of the Partner.
As I flagged with the Performance Manager, having conversations about race does not make you a racist. That email – from my position – was not an accusation, despite it being received as one, and I explained that multiple times.
On the other hand, something for management to consider is that immediately defending yourself, having management unite to ask that an email be retracted, being unable to use the word ‘racist’, and putting me in a position where I have to defend my professional conduct (despite seeking counsel) without actual discussions on race looks far, far worse.
Luckily, I don’t abide to ‘cancel culture’ and am happy to take the process as far as it needs to go if prompted. I consider the issue between the Partner and myself resolved, i.e. the conversation – with the additional detail – is not of a racist manner.
Now, the primary issue for me, if I was to take this issue further (and which I absolutely am not) would be to suggest that management at all levels are equipped with the language to have conversations about racism and develop a maturity where, if someone flags racist behaviour there is no knee jerk response to immediately defend oneself.
Instead, we wait until we are not emotional, we search for the facts, and we address the issue at hand with the focus to understand.
We do appear to agree that the process that hasn’t worked for us all and - my understanding - is that we all consider the issue resolved and so - fingers crossed - we will all learn together, and this will get better with time.