On the 4th April, the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assasination, I wrote a piece about my experiences in the City over the past couple of decades. I set it out in the form of a quiz and promised to share what I actually did in each situation. Here are "the answers".
Question 1: The nearest tree
Answer 1: c) just walk away and do nothing, shamefully, whilst Martin Luther King looks down on you in disgust.
Yes, I'm afraid I had no response and I am still ashamed to this day. I remember being completely taken aback at the blatant racism and to be honest I was scared. I didn't know what to do, a week in to the job. So I walked away, kept my mouth shut and got on with life. I steered clear of this unpleasant individual for the rest of my time at the London Stock Exchange.
Question 2: Japanese Diplomacy
Answer 2: a) Take it head on, pick a fight with one of the largest banks in the world and damn the consequences.
Gosh, this was a tough decision. But I felt it was just too "wrong" to let pass. I really felt I was ending my prospects of a City career by deciding to fight but I took it on whatever the consequences, and I'm proud of myself for doing that.
Here's how it played out.
After careful consideration, the CRE took up the case and filed a racial discrimination case against the bank. The bank responded by hiring a very powerful law firm who hit back swiftly. They claimed that the individual involved did not speak english well and had meant "we don't employ foreigners" (because of work permits) not "we don't employ black people". Also they said the CRE had filed case against the wrong legal entity as the employee in question did not work for the entity that was referenced in the case, so we were back to square one. Meanwhile the employee in question was quickly repatriated to head office in Tokyo.
However the CRE persisted with the case. Then things got interesting. I got a call from the recruitment lady in tears asking to see me. We met and she told me that her Director had had a meeting with her that morning. Her Director told her the facts of life. The Japanese bank had had a quiet word with the Director at the recruitment agency. If that agency didn't get their employee to drop the case then that agency would never do any business with any japanese bank in the City again. So, the Director told the lady if she didn't drop the case she in turn would never work in the recruitment industry in the City again.
The poor lady was distraught, but she felt that she could not say goodbye to her career for this case, so she had to retract everything. In fact they even made her write a personal letter of apology to the Japanese employee! So that's how it ended.
Almost. Except that last year (20 years later) I got a call from the same bank saying they were interested in my company, Garlik, and could they come and tell me about their services and their venture capital arm? It's a funny old world.
Question 3: The Little Drummer Boy
Answer 3: c) walk out of the room, but pretend to yourself that you are going to pick it up with him later.
I was quite embarrased by the chap's actions, but I knew he didn't mean anything by it, so I was puzzled as to what to do. I walked away, but the mistake I made was that I didn't go back to have a word with him about it later.
A few weeks later I walked into a pub after work to meet up with him and others for a drink. As I walked in, he swung round and shouted jovially across the pub "Hey, Ilube, you old black bastard. Come over here". A few people laughed, a few people looked embarrased for me, most kept their heads down.
I gasped, spun on my heel and stormed out. I heard him chase after me shouting "come back, I didn't mean it" but I left anyway and went home. The next day, he apologised sincerely and I have not heard another such remark out of him since.
My only regret there is that I should have said something first time round. By saying nothing, I had given him permission to carry on with that type of behaviour, both with me and with others. I should have nipped it in the bud and a simple word or two would have taken care of it. So, wrong call by me there.
Question 4: The Monkey Puzzle
Answer 4: well, not a) but then not really b) either.
I just couldn't bring myself to green light the exercise of having every single person questioned to find out the culprit. I think I had a pretty good idea who the culprits were and I had decided to speak to them myself.
However what actually happened was that the Big Boss sent out an email to all 250 staff that evening. It was a powerful piece and I still have a 12 year old print out of it. It described exactly what had happened, it stated that as Chief Executive he wanted to make it crystal clear that this is completely unacceptable and more fundamentally that this behaviour is completely out of line with the culture that he was creating. He invited the culprit, if he was bold enough, to approach me and apologise. Or if the individual didn't feel able to do that, he invited that individual to leave the organisation.
The effect of this note was extremely impactful. I felt 100% supported and the organisation got a clear message from the top. No-one ever apologised to me and I never did find out who the artist was but I think this is a textbook example of how a Chief Executive should behave in this situation. Brilliant.
Question 5: Who's in the woodpile?
Answer 5: b) keep you mouth shut. After all it's just a phrase. He's a man of his time. He didn't mean anything by it, probably doesn't even know he said it.
The "woodpile" incident is one that so many black professional people in the UK have had to deal with, and I wish someone had told me what to do before it happened to me. I made a complete mistake the first time this happened to me. I opted for option b) - let it slide. I should not have let it go.
In this case, what actually happened was that one of the other directors mentioned to the executive in question what he had done. He was shocked and surprised. He literally couldn't remember saying it and was very embarrased. Next time we were together he found a gruff, blokey sort of way to apologise and I am sure he eliminated that phrase from his vocabulary.
However a couple of years later I was in another executive meeting in the same organisation when a different executive used exactly the same phrase. Having thought long and hard about what I would do next time it happened, I was ready.
Tom (slowly, quizically and deliberately, as if seeking clarity but not threatenly) "Ah, excuse me, but did you just say Nigger...In...The...Woodpile?"
Executive (turning very red very quickly) "oh my goodness, did I? I'm so sorry. I really do apologise. Gosh. I don't know where that came from. Really sorry."
Tom (dismissive wave of the arm) "no problem, no problem, it's just a bit offensive you see. But let's carry on".
That's all that's needed really. The message is clear. The issue is dealt with on the spot in a powerful but non-threatening way and life moves on.
And in general, life moves on. These incidents come and go and they change over time. What I and my generation have faced has been difficult at times but is trivial compared to what my parents generation faced. My children, unfortunately, will have their own challenges. But as the song says "that that that that that don't kill me, can only make me stronger"