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‘Colleagues can feel uncomfortable bringing race up’: how reverse mentorships can open minds in the workplace

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Delmaine Donson/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Delmaine Donson/Getty Images

At digital services firm Capita, traditional mentoring has undergone something of a transformation. Whereas once, senior staff would coach juniors on the ins and outs of business etiquette, relationship building and other all-important corporate skills, in 2021 the approach is much more give-and-take; Mutual Mentorship at Capita sees junior members of staff who are Black, Asian or minority ethnic offer senior staff mentorship and insight on social issues in exchange for traditional career mentorship and support.

Related: ‘I feel that my voice is being heard’: how one corporation responded to 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests

Performance and development consultant Marcel De Jonghe is the project’s programme lead and was responsible for creating the learning materials used in the scheme. “I’m of mixed heritage and know at certain times when people have become aware of this, their perception [of me] changes and I have to work harder to break that,” he says. “After George Floyd’s murder last year, our Black Lives Matter [BLM] Advisory Group came up with the idea of a reverse mentoring programme. We’ve got very senior leaders within Capita who want to understand these issues and junior members of our team who want to make change, but don’t know how. Why not bring these individuals together?”

It was important, however, that responsibility was not placed solely on people who are Black, Asian or minority ethnic, says Marcel. “It’s not the responsibility of any ethnic minority to educate others – we’re not the ones to fix it, we need help, allyship and support. Mutual mentoring is a reciprocal relationship where junior members of staff are supported.”

Launched in January, the programme has so far paired 188 employees into 94 mentor-mentee relationships with a high sign-up for the November round already. The programme covers 10 predetermined topics that were put forward by Capita’s Black Employee Network, covering everything from what is racism to microaggressions, systemic racism and the concept of white privilege. “We give guidance and structure with pre-learning material, further reading and questions, which the pairs can meet up [currently via video call] and discuss, comparing answers,” says Marcel. “At the end of each session pairs are asked what they are going to do to make sustainable changes.”

Support for the scheme goes all the way to the top; Capita’s chief executive of Public Service, Andy Start, is among the staff taking part in Mutual Mentorship. “It’s hugely energising and inspiring,” he says. “I have gained new insights on the organisation, about the way different people are motivated and what systematic barriers colleagues are facing. Mentors get to see the organisation and their opportunities within it from a perspective they might not have considered, so it is a fantastic way to help people with their careers too.”

Consultant Jeannie Dunn is part of Capita’s BLM Advisory Group, which was put together to advise actions in response to the BLM movement, and is an ally member of the company’s Black Employee Network, which put forward the Mutual Mentorship proposal. “It was something I really believed in because the idea of a mentoring programme covering these issues gives you licence to talk about really uncomfortable topics,” she says. “I’ve always been very open to talking about issues around social justice and race, but in previous workplaces there might be eyerolls or people not really wanting to talk about it. Colleagues can sometimes feel uncomfortable bringing these things up. But when it’s given to you as a structured lesson plan you both have to read, it takes away that initial controversy or awkwardness and you have to confront it.”

“It’s not enough to not be a racist, you need to be actively anti-racist and that message is really at the forefront of my mind now,” adds Lucie West, head of business services at the West Sussex county council Capita partnership. She has been paired with mentor and regional manager Aman Kalirai. “The programme has given me greater knowledge to not only identify racism or inequality, but to be able to step in more carefully and competently to achieve a better outcome.” Trust between the pairs is key, flags Lucie’s mentor Aman. “I signed up because I thought I could give examples of things I’ve experienced – both personally and in my career – to really drive change. It means I’m sharing personal experiences, like how when I travel to Belfast for work, I always get stopped and searched – something that had never occurred to Lucie.” He is optimistic about the impact of sharing experiences like these. “If I can walk away from this programme having influenced even just one person then it’s a success, because if you can change the mindset of one person, that has a huge ripple effect on everyone else,” he says.

So far, internal feedback has been impressive. “People feel more comfortable confronting behaviours that perhaps they knew were wrong before,” says Marcel. “We’ve also seen individuals find the confidence to apply for roles they historically wouldn’t have applied for, with the help of their mentees.”

There are wider benefits for the organisation, too. “Our world is increasingly interconnected,” says Andy. “We need inclusive and diverse workplaces and teams that can engage with anyone – regardless of background, culture, ethnicity, religion, working and thinking styles. Our division designs and delivers public services for citizens across the UK – we can only design excellent services if we address needs in an inclusive way.”

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