Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement Phoenix’s Head of HR and L&D Woosh Raza and Director of Marketing and Innovation Jim Armstrong took some time to discuss racial discrimination, inclusion, workplace communities, privilege, education and how to make the world a better place.
We’ve split the conversation into three parts.
- Part One – what can we learn from the Black Lives Matter movement?
- Part Two – the potential of uncomfortable conversations
- Part Three – being your authentic self
Being Your Authentic Self
There’s a couple of thoughts that come out of that and one is about feeling able to pitch into the conversation and get it wrong. But maybe getting it wrong, could be the learning point, could be the difficult conversation. If you’re not getting involved, then you probably will feel a little bit excluded.
As a white male, used to being the majority and then not being in control then it might feel like you're being discriminated against, just by experiencing equality.
Yeah, absolutely. I think equity is a really important point. And I do think that there's a perception that, you know, you lose control or you lose influence, and that is daunting, but I think what I always encourage is that we're not taking anything away from people by having this conversation, what we're doing is giving to those who have suffered from years and years of inequalities, discrimination or systemic prejudices that have permeated every layer of our society. And by addressing that, you're not taking away from anything, you're then balancing out.
If those are the feelings and thoughts that you have, you first need to own that those thoughts and feelings and you know you have it and that's fine. And then secondly is enable yourself to put yourself into an environment where those views and thoughts can be challenged and sometimes people don't want to do. What needs to change is that we need to be able to put our truth out there, have a conversation and know that it's going to be uncomfortable because it will speak to the very heart of who we are as human beings.
And I suppose it means that those that are used to having more say, need to feel less defensive. And we see this defensiveness all the time. The ‘what about’ argument.
I have called that out this week when people say ‘All Lives Matter’. I saw a really good analogy of this, if six people sit down, the black man is sitting down with the other five and they all get served a plate of food and he doesn't get a plate of food. So, he says he's hungry. And the others say well we're all hungry too!
It's not about a contest of who has the most hardships, the issue is to be able to safely speak your truth, be able to live in a world that's equitable and fair and gives people opportunities regardless of who that individual is.
You have to get through that in your own head and get to a place where you're able to have a conversation that's going to benefit you and the individual that you're talking to. I wonder if there's a sense of people not wanting to accept that they have benefited from privilege. I think we live in quite individualistic society and there is benefit to community, bringing people together listening to understand. We live in times of a public health crisis, so perhaps we have started to understand a little bit more how our own behaviour impacts others.
Yeah, absolutely. I think you raise a really good point around privilege and owning your privilege and, and I think privilege is probably one of the most contentious and emotive subjects in the whole of the ED&I space because if you don't acknowledge your privilege how can you then use your privilege to make to change. You know, become an ally to others.
What’s been reassuring this week is the many people expressing that desire to do more, and do better and utilise those privileges to support the black community. And that kind of self-awareness is what will create that lasting change that we're seeking to achieve.
And it is difficult it is about owning you have grown up, and you've experienced life in a very different way to someone like myself. I remember when I first started in this career because HR is mainly a female led profession, and roughly 70% of HR professionals are white women.
So that put me in an interesting space coming into the career. And the second part about it was my personality. I remember getting feedback and senior colleagues saying “Woosh, well you're not serious enough to be a HR Professional”. I got that so often and it made me really question things, because that privilege has been created those structures that we see with people of colour not having board level positions, not enough people of colour are in leadership roles, we are just not visible enough. We do still associate looking and acting a certain way to being a senior executive and that needs to change. When I went into my own career I was told “You’re too camp”, “You need to stop being so feminine” or “You need to speak in a certain way otherwise no one's going to take you seriously”. And those comments really affected me.
And it made me think how many people coming into the world of work experience this or are subjected to early prejudices. I felt lucky to be able to work through them and have a support network, and then start to develop an understanding and to challenge that, but actually how many people accept that, get boxed in because of what everything else around them is telling them to do so.
You know, I now actively preach my early experiences saying, I was told actively not to bring my personality into my work. I have reclaimed that narrative now by declaring it is, because I brought my personality into my work that I feel I have had success. My career has progressed as a direct result of me being me, me being authentic about who I am and what I have.
And that's a really interesting thing, you know that's something I'm doing with my own lived experience, had I have been a straight white man would I have had those same insecurities? No, absolutely not. And, and that is something you have to acknowledge you know. So, I think privilege is probably one of the hardest areas to tackle. But once you make that headway, it's one of the most rewarding sense of how you can use that privilege to help others.
So, there's a way of thinking of privilege in that way is actually quite free-ing. Rather than thinking I've benefited from something and having a sense of guilt, turn that into something that enables benefit for others. And so privilege is a resource we can apply for the benefit of others.
But we like to think we have got where we are from our own resources.
You probably grafted, a lot, you know, you need to do it, but those opportunities have been afforded to you or have at the very least been made easier for you to access as a result of the privilege that you have. And you know that can become a contentious area.
Did you feel you had to find a place where you could be successful or did you have to make your own space to be successful?
I'm not embarrassed I have hopped around a bit workwise, when I started this journey I was very, I would say impressionable, but I guess I didn't understand enough of what was going on around me. I was not making sense of the fact of my identity played such a huge part of my career I never even saw that, if that made sense, I was like “Why am I not getting all these opportunities?”. “Why can't I get involved in that piece of work?” or “Why can't I speak to this, this person over here?” because they've been shielding me because of the way I act or the way I am or the colour of my skin. I never saw that and then when I did when I started to recognise it, and you know I did hop around, and I actually must say, and I will share this I think anywhere I've ever worked Phoenix has the most open and embracing sense of home, I have, I have felt I would say as far back as since I started my career. And that has definitely given me the platform to have this conversation with you today. I have had to move around to find a safe space to where I can talk in this way. It's all because of the culture we have at Phoenix I remember when I first joined and Karen sat me down in a room she said we encourage openness and honesty, and I kind of thought no offence, but there was a bit of me that thought ‘this is what all people say when people start an organisation’.
But within the first month, the conversations I was having across our senior management team, executive team and wider colleagues really demonstrated our strong employee voice – we absolutely speak our mind here which I love! I've been having some really candid discussions with great, amazing individuals from across the organisation who are open to educate themselves as a result of what is happening right now. And that's rare, and that's part of that part of the reason I did hop around to find my home here at Phoenix. The fact of the matter at Phoenix is that we put our people at the very heart of what we do.
And I do want to make a point of that you know when this pandemic first hit, I think we talked about trust and that all of those things play a role in equality diversity and inclusion, because it is about trusting that you can bring your authentic self to work. I do have a diva personality you know that makes me who I am! And I don't think I've ever at Phoenix felt that I've needed to remove that part of myself in order to be taken seriously. The reason I've left other organisations in quick succession is because I feel like I could only bring 50% of Woosh to the table.
And if it's awful when you experience that. I can't explain it, you die inside a little, basically half of you dies when you wake up because you feel you can't be who you are. And you feel shame and that it's wrong to be who you are. And I feel fully functional in this culture. I think it's important to be championing this message on diversity to the wider sector because we do such a great job of that internally, and I think we need to shout out that a bit more, you know.
I think it's I think it's a real shame when people don't feel their employee really wants them. It's a real shame that people think they just want your time, or they just want your expertise but actually don't want you.
Work life is such a big chunk of our lives.
Absolutely. And I think I could challenge the term ‘work life balance’ especially now with remote work. It's harder to make that distinction between work and life. That concept came from traditional industry, you would leave your work at the office or you'd leave it in the factory, because you could switch off and then you can have your life. But technology has completely revolutionised that. We have access to our emails. We can work at any time that we like. The boundaries of work and life are blending together and if you can’t be yourself at work, that can be a really draining place to be in.
Yes, I feel like the work we do we ask people to come into treatment and be really incredibly honest and people who've had drug and alcohol problems in our services are the most honest and open, so it feels like we owe it to people that use our services to be authentic with each other.
Is there anything you’d like to say that we haven't so covered?
This has really energised me. You've been very authentic in this conversation and I do think that will resonate with people, hopefully to highlight the point that education and understanding is key. Pick up the phone, and speak to a black co-worker or speak to someone who has a different point of view to you. Take the time to research, go on Google, but there are so many books on this, you know there are so many really great books on race. I've got a few that I can recommend that challenge you to think about this issue in a different way.
We did touch on this, but I think I need to really reiterate it's no good saying now I'm not racist. It's now about actively saying, I'm anti-racist. So even if you yourself are not racist if you see it, if you hear it if you stand by and don’t speak up you're complicit. Speaking up and advocating on behalf of those who are being discriminated against is going to create a change, and a tidal wave of change really, that should hopefully make the world a better place.
Well that sounds like a great point to end on.