Question Time

An unhealthy silence can take the place of open debate if staff
and managers are uncomfortable about tackling race and equality
issues. You cannot confront racist views, challenge stereotypes and
myths or tackle ignorance if no one is prepared to talk. The fear
of being accused of being a racist is in danger of preventing staff
and managers exploring issues of race.

Our senior management team received anecdotal evidence that such an
unhealthy silence existed in parts of the directorate. This was
despite its clear policies, examples of good practice, targets
covering recruitment and service delivery, a champions’ group
to promote good practice and a black workers’ support

However, it was feedback from the black workers’ support
group that provided anecdotal evidence that questioned the
effectiveness of our efforts. We heard about managers being
reluctant to release people to attend meetings and staff made to
feel uncomfortable or that they were receiving special treatment.
We heard that some people were not confident that our policies
would be effective because not all managers supported them. We
could not be confident that managers were promoting our policies
because people were reluctant to discuss issues of race. 

As part of raising awareness we introduced a two-day race and
equality training session for all staff. More than 300 have
attended this course so far. After the first event, the trainer
identified questions that staff had raised that he was either
unable to answer or that he did not think it right for him to
answer as someone from outside the organisation. So we produced a
management response to these questions to be published on our
intranet. As a result Lancashire Council’s social services
directorate is using its internal intranet to tackle hot issues by
getting the real questions out in the open. These questions have
arisen out of comments made by staff in racial awareness training,
feedback from members of the black workers’ support group and
the direct experience of managers.

The questions reveal misunderstandings, stereotypes and myths about
race and racism. We have been bold and faithfully reproduced these
questions and provided challenging answers. The intranet and
material on it is available to all staff with access to a computer
– about two-thirds of our 4,700 staff. Managers can use these
questions and answers to introduce discussion in team meetings,
confident in the knowledge that there is an agreed management
response. The result has been to give managers increased confidence
in discussing issues of race and racism.

Some of these questions made uncomfortable reading for senior
managers who thought that we had made more progress than this. Some
questions were shocking both in their level of ignorance and their
challenge to the directorate’s policies. But they reflect the
views of many staff and the way they think (see The
Intranet Debate

Publishing the questions and answers shifts the responsibility for
explaining policy from front-line managers to senior managers. As
the person leading on this bold approach, I felt I was taking a
risk. What if this material was picked up and quoted out of context
by the local press? What if the British National Party used this
material to misrepresent the council’s position? Would I be
challenged on the answers we had provided?

This experience has taught me that you should not ignore anecdotal
evidence. Instead, you should find ways of establishing whether the
experience of one individual is the same as the experience of many
individuals. That to get a true picture of where your organisation
is in relation to race and equality you need to get people to talk
openly and to capture what comes out of that discussion. And you
need to do something with this information. It has shown me that
many managers lack the confidence to initiate discussions with
staff and adequately explain the organisation’s policies when
it comes to race issues.

It is important to address the issues of confidence and trust that
are raised when staff experiences are different from that which
senior management say they can expect. Publishing the questions and
answers on the intranet site sends out a clear message about the
commitment and expectations of the directorate.

The Intranet Debate
What about racial equality for whites?
Racial equality is about fairness for all sections of the
community both black and white. We tend to focus on racial equality
for minority ethnic groups because all the information we have
tells us that they are not being fairly treated. We employ fewer
people from minority ethnic communities than we would expect given
the profile of the local community and fewer people from minority
ethnic groups use our services than we would expect, given
Lancashire’s population.

Why do people from minority ethnic groups get special
treatment like a day centre specifically for Asian elders or a
choice of different meals on wheels?

Equality is not about treating everybody the same. It’s about
treating people fairly which involves recognising that people have
different religious beliefs, values and customs. If someone’s
religion means they don’t eat meat then it seems fair to
provide them with a choice of meals that includes a vegetarian
option. Most day centres operate to meet the needs of the majority
group within the population so the food and the activities are not
geared up to someone from the Chinese or other ethnic minority
community. It seems only fair that we should develop day
centres/services where people who share the same religion, culture
and background can meet together.

Isn’t equality about treating everybody the
No. Equality is about treating everybody fairly.

Why are some jobs open to ethnic minorities only?
The sex discrimination and race equality employment
legislation allows an employer to advertise to recruit someone
specifically because of their gender or race providing they can
demonstrate a genuine occupational qualification. An example of
this would be seeking to recruit a female carer to provide personal
intimate care to a disabled young Muslim woman. This would meet the
criteria because it would be culturally unacceptable for the care
to be provided by a male. Very few jobs advertised by social
services are restricted to someone from an ethnic minority.

Why do we need a black workers’ support group?
Black workers are very much in the minority within the
directorate. Some people can feel very isolated being the only
black person in a team, a day centre or an office. In order to help
people feel less isolated we offer the opportunity for them to get
together with other people in a similar situation to theirs.

Why does everybody need racial equality training when some
parts of the county have little or no minority ethnic
The challenge of providing a culturally sensitive and
appropriate service is even greater where the minority ethnic
population is smallest. If staff do not routinely come across
people from minority ethnic communities they are less likely to be
sensitive to the issues and more likely to lack confidence in
dealing appropriately with people. If there is not an established
minority ethnic community in the locality then there are unlikely
to be ethnic minority voluntary groups or mosques and temples that
an individual can be referred to. Therefore, racial equality
training is even more important for these staff.

Blair McPherson  is director of organisation development
for Lancashire social services department. He is passionately
committed to championing the cause of ethnic minorities. He started
his career as a residential worker in a children’s home and
has worked in social services and housing.

Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to
guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at
and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be
registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the
site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered

This article describes the positive initiatives, including
use of modern technology, which are being used to bring the subject
of racism out into the open in a large local authority. Many
organisations will have similar issues among their staff and using
the intranet is one way to highlight the seriousness with which
senior management views the issue and give managers the confidence
to tackle racism head on.

Contact the author 

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