An incident at Buckingham Palace this week where a lady in waiting repeatedly asked a black charity leader ‘where she came from’ has dominated headlines. Why is this important for HR professionals and people managers?
On Tuesday (29 November) at Buckingham Palace during a reception on gender-based violence, Ngozi Fulani, the founder of the charity Sistah Space and a black woman, was persistently asked ‘where she came from’ by a member of the Royal Household. Lady Susan Hussey had initially tried to move Fulani’s hair out of the way so she could read Fulani’s name badge and then then repeatedly questioned Fulani, refusing to accept ‘Hackney’ and ‘Britain’ as answers.
The incident was witnessed by Mandu Reid, the leader of the Women’s Equality Party and another charity representative. The palace swiftly described Hussey’s remarks as “unacceptable and deeply regrettable”. A spokesperson for Prince William said “racism has no place in our society”. Fulani described the encounter as abusive and an attempt by Hussey to make her denounce her British citizenship.
Lady Hussey, who is Prince William’s godmother, has since resigned from her role of lady in waiting at the Palace and has offered to meet Fulani to apologise. Former CPS lawyer Nazir Afzal has said he was also questioned by Hussey about ‘where he came from’ but she had accepted Afzal’s answer: “currently, Manchester”. Hussey, who is 83, had worked at the Palace since 1960. Fulani has said she has no wish to see Hussey vilified and had not demanded her resignation or sacking.
Discrimination endures because failing to act is tacit reinforcement to continue unchecked – Anna Eliatamby, clincial psychologist and author
The event had been hosted by queen consort Camilla Parker Bowles.
For Anna Eliatamby, clinical psychologist, author of Our Journey for Diversity and Inclusion in Business and director of Healthy Living CIC, the incident has major ramifications from an HR perspective. She says: “What occurred between Lady Susan Hussey of the Royal Household and Ngozi Fulani, chief executive, Sistah Space is having massive repercussions. It is something we can all learn from.
“At the level of human interaction, a privileged person interacted from their base of assumptions and did not consider the impact of their physical actions and statements on the receiver and witnesses. Some have questioned the veracity of those who have spoken about what happened. This occurs very often at work and can, when unchecked, lead to discrimination and toxicity.
“This was not the first time that Lady Hussey had asked this question. It is doubtful that anyone gave her any feedback. And so she continued. In organisations, this is a common occurrence and so discrimination endures because failing to act is tacit reinforcement to continue unchecked. Sadly, leadership remains reluctant to address these behaviours even with compelling evidence from years of substantiated reports of the existence of discrimination and racism. Rarely will someone take immediate action as happened here and with an apology.
Discrimination at work
“Second, it was a prime example of how discrimination occurs. Although Ngozi Fulani was asked about her ‘African origins’, the rest of the questioning was indirect and discriminatory such that the listeners became very uncomfortable. Indirect discrimination is very common. Diverse staff are often treated unfairly, likely to find it more difficult to be promoted, or may not be given the right resources or information.
“Because it is indirect, it becomes more difficult to prove its existence and effect. That it is part of organisational culture is known and we can offer training; for example, unconscious bias, awareness. But the research is very clear. These interventions have a limited impact in the short and long term unless leadership and HR expect behaviour change.
“When we speak about diversity, we don’t always name the emotional impact of being discriminated against and the psychological effects for the intolerant person. Ngozi Fulani said that she let her guard down because she felt she was in a safe space. Often diverse people are on alert for the next action, the next comment. And they don’t let their guard down – this has a personal cost and is stressful. Many of the workplace interventions and policies need to be adjusted so that we support the emotional aspects beyond networks and affinity groups which are often marginalised. On the rare occasion that action is taken to address someone’s negative behaviour, it is only fair that we give that person support to reflect, learn and change. They are also part of our human community.
“This brief interaction has unearthed much for many. And most will forget it next week except those being discriminated against. What will it take to make sure this becomes a turning point for the better for us all?”
Dr Jonathan Lord, HR lecturer at Salford University, tells Personnel Today that Hussey’s behaviour was the result of long ingrained culture at the Palace. He says: “You would argue that this is how she has operated previously and may not have been challenged, which is no defence but is symptomatic of those who don’t have access to a diverse way of life or believe that their mannerisms are accepted as it was once deemed acceptable in their time.”
He adds that tackling this issue in the wider context of work is difficult because it requires “a change in both organisational culture as well as individual approach to racism. It also requires a level of conversation that reaffirms the message that racism does exist.
He adds that “systemic racism exists where bias and prejudice are built into systems, processes, policies, as well as customs and practices of organisations. Systemic racism is found in the leadership of an organisation and has developed over a long period of time.” He said the reports of the interaction between Fulani and Hussey will help people’s awareness of how they should be interacting within the modern world.