Social work attracts people from a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds, but what should professionals do when they encounter racism? Narmada Thiranagama (pictured), Unison’s national race equality officer, offers advice on how to react to racism from service users
Know your rights
As public sector staff, social workers have a duty to actively promote racial equality, to eliminate racial discrimination, and to foster better race relations. But as public sector employees, they too have the right to expect their employers make sure they work in a place free of racial discrimination or abuse. And they have the protection of strong legal backing – racist discrimination is illegal.
What is racism?
First let’s define the problem – harassment on grounds of race, ethnic origins, colour or nationality is “unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity; or creating an intimidating, hostile degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person”.
Reacting to incidents
Check whether your employer has a policy in place to prevent incidents occurring. If they don’t, Unison branches will be able to negotiate to set them up. Policy should be developed with effective workforce involvement and issued to all staff, with training.
This guidance will inform what should happen in the immediate aftermath of an incident. In the absence of this, people should keep calm, don’t retaliate, and try to remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible. If you have any protective equipment such as an alarm, activate it.
Report the issue, and make sure it is recorded, so that risk assessments can be reviewed and your employer can seek to introduce improved measures. Then your colleagues will know that the service user has a history and can take steps to protect themselves.
Planning for incidents – risk assessments
Risks of workplace racism are often foreseeable, so employers must take steps to assess risks, then work to minimise the risk of potential incidents. This five-step process starts with looking for hazards. Are social workers going on lone visits? Does a client have a history of racist abuse? Next steps are identifying who might be harmed and why. It is a sad fact that black and Asian workers are far more likely to be victims of racial violence. Step three: evaluate the risks. This could highlight the training a social worker needs to spot the signs of a client getting angry, or only treating a service user with a history of being racially abusive in an area with security support. Fourth step: record the findings – under-reporting is still a big issue. Finally, continually review and revise the assessment to keep it safe and effective.
Get the right support
When attacks do occur, employers must support workers, during and after an incident. If social workers feel they would benefit from counselling, this should be made available.
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This article is published in the 3 March 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “How to…tackle racism against social workers”