It was never my intention to turn this blog into a sports report, but who could have predicted such furore as we have seen/heard since the decision last week to remove the England captaincy from John Terry – he has been accused of using racist language against another player. Unusually, for an often too-slow-to-react sports’ governing body, the Football Association has taken a half step in their decision, but could their reaction have gone further?
This incident has provoked a huge media reaction; front and back pages of every newspaper, radio comment and television coverage. How could I miss this opportunity to write? But, rather than another focus specifically on it or an associated case study, there are many about similar issues, I thought it would be interesting to generalise.
What would happen in any workplace in the UK if an employee is accused of making an overtly discriminatory comment? Most often, the immediate response would be to suspend the person concerned pending an inquiry into the situation. Should the allegation then be proved, there is a well trodden path through disciplinary procedures, leading toward a potential dismissal, the employer would take. The employer can never condone discrimination and not to act would be seen as condoning. They may then become liable themselves.
If the allegation is proven, the employer has to decide if it constitutes enough of a misdemeanour for summary dismissal. If not, perhaps the person has responded to a discriminatory tendency or to an unconscious bias – something we all have as a result of societal and formative years’ education. We can remember David Cameron recently trying to excuse his sexist comment to Angela Eagle, by saying that in the heat of Prime Minister’s Questions things slip out – perhaps his bias was revealed then.
In my experience, most people who have been accused of discrimination are unaware that their words or actions were offensive in the first place. In these cases, careful intervention and re-education may be all that is needed to rectify the situation – along with careful future monitoring.
It may be that an opportunity has arisen to address some of the prevailing attitudes through coaching; something enlightened employers choose, but most still send the person on an equality training programme. Such training does not always have the most beneficial results, though the employer is of course “doing it the right way”. By this stage, people at executive or senior management level will have raised concerned about process – just in case eventual dismissal leads to a tribunal hearing, an action which can be very costly.
Coaching is the preferred method of intervention. A carefully developed programme, which is delivered in a non-accusatory way, can achieve amazing results. However, the likelihood of long-term success is dependent on the level and quality of the intervention. Equality Edge provides “Working with Difference” coaching which has had some excellent results.
So why does today’s football world seem different? When another footballer was accused recently of a similar “crime”, he received an eight match suspension as punishment, but no further sanction. I wonder if Mr Terry’s full time employers, Chelsea Football Club, have been anywhere down the disciplinary path described above, albeit behind closed doors. If in the long run, he is found guilty in court, surely they will then have to react appropriately, or perhaps they believe it is okay for high profile sportspeople to have less than acceptable attitudes and behaviours.
For some, the football authorities took the right course of action and applaud them, whilst for others the intervention was just a knee-jerk reaction in “response to a culture of political correctness” pervading UK society. Perhaps you find yourself in neither camp, suggesting that the FA did not go far enough (neither have Chelsea) and that to deal with racism in the UK, a strong stand must be taken against it whenever it appears.
The message for the football authorities, along with other employers, is that they should never be ambiguous. The FA’s position that “if you’re accused of racism you cannot lead our country, but you can still represent it”, is not a strong position. Maybe it would have been better to acknowledge that having been accused of using racist language he’s suspended and if eventually proven innocent, then he’s reinstated. Simple and unambiguous – racism, sexism, homophobia and all discrimination will not be tolerated at any level or in any place.
So FA, well done on the part step you have taken, are you or Chelsea going to be bold enough to go the rest of the way?