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Dr. Verena Marshall has a PhD in Organisational Behaviour, MBA, Juris Doctor of Law, Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice, and is an admitted Solicitor to the Supreme Court of New South Wales. As well as a Graduate Certificate in Migration Law, Verena holds Certificates III and IV in Investigations, and is a Licensed Investigator in Western Australia and Nationally Accredited Mediator. Verena undertakes workplace investigations, mediations and training on behalf of iHR Australia.

Casual discrimination and causal harm

I was recently on holiday in New Zealand, and in the first week of January 2017 read media articles about a controversy over Sir Peter Leitch (distinguished retailer in the butchery industry) describing Waiheke Island to Ms Lara Wharepapa-Bridger as a “white man’s island”.  Ms Wharepapa-Bridger,resident of the island and of Maori descent, was offended when she heard Sir Peter say that to her as she considered the comment to be racist.  Sir Peter’s spokesperson, Ms Michelle Boag, added to the incident by dismissing Sir Peter’s comment as racist, because Ms Wharepapa-Bridger was “… barely coffee-coloured.”

Dame Susan Devoy, New Zealand’s Race Relations Commissioner, entered into the debate. While referring to SirPeter as a “…very good person at heart, that [comment] was offensive to Ms [Wharepapa]-Bridger…and it needs to be fixed up.”  Further, in response to Ms Boag’s follow-up, Dame Susan said the ‘coffee-coloured’ comment was out of line: “This is quite an ignorant thing to say, someone’s skin colour has nothing to do with anyone else except that person.  Your colour doesn’t define your ethnicity or your culture.”

As is often the case with such incidents, there are many sides to the same story reflecting perceptions and stated intentions of those involved, as well as interpretations of those who witness or comment on them.  At the heart of such incidents may be what Dame Susan refers to as ‘casual racism’; that is, people say or do things to others without realising that what they are saying and doing is offensive.  While Dame Susan’s focus in this incident is on racism, I contend that such ‘casualness’ can be seen in all forms of discrimination and areas of life, including the workplace, causing potential or actual harm to others.

Discrimination legislation in New Zealand and Australia seeks to protect individuals’ personal attributes in the workplace; nonetheless, there still remain ‘casual’ or ‘quiet’ discriminatory encounters that never feel casual or quiet to those on the receiving end of them.   Even if these encounters are not intended to be discriminatory, it is not the intention that matters.  In the words of Dame Susan, “The important thing is being able to recognise when we have offended someone, to work with them to resolve it…and to make sure we never do it again.”  It is equally important to nurture a culture (in and out of the workplace) where the voices of those who face intolerance are heard, because:

We suspect many of us don’t realise when something we say is unfair or biased, but we would if someone pointed it out to us” (Dame Susan Devoy).

It was later reported in the media that Sir Peter ‘unreservedly apologised’ to Ms Wharepapa-Bridger, and Ms Boag said that she “…has learned a thing or two in the last couple of days about casual racism”.  I believe there is always room to learn ‘a thing or two’ about casual racism, and any other form of discriminatory communication and behaviour.

This may well be one of the key challenges for HR and management professionals in 2017 given the current political and social climate.

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