I told my manager at Homes England that I experienced racism at work on most days. He smugly retorted: “I disagree. I talked to [the other black woman] and she said, it’s no more racist here than anywhere else”.
They expected me to endure a daily dose of racism without complaint. And sometimes I did. I harnessed my stress induced adrenaline rush to bat away sneers and snipes and dodge obstacles. I threw all my energies into my job which, on a good day, I loved.
But, while I’m resilient, I am only human. Three and a half years of microaggressions and imposter treatment led to severe stress, a pulmonary embolism, high blood pressure, excessive nosebleeds, and anaemia. I was on a slow march to death by a thousand microaggression cuts.
Racial microaggressions are often downplayed as unconscious bias or clumsy language. This rhetoric gives racists free reign to do and say what they want, while those who complain are told they’re oversensitive, aggressive, or not collaborative.
Three forms of racial microaggressions as described by Social scientists Sue, Bucceri, Lin, Nadal, and Torino (2007):
Microassault: an explicit racial derogation; verbal/nonverbal, e.g. name-calling, avoidant behaviour, purposeful discriminatory actions.
Microinsult: communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity; subtle snubs; unknown to the perpetrator; hidden insulting message to the recipient.
Microinvalidation: communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person belonging to a particular group.
Want to know how it feels to experience microaggressions every day at work? Imagine a colleague surreptitiously jabs a knife in your back as they smile and shake your hand. And while you’re processing that, you feel a sharp jab from someone else in your arm while the other colleague stabs you in the foot. Hurt and confused you seek out help. What knife, you imagined it. There is no help. You’re on your own. You ready yourself for the next jab and bend this way and that, but hundreds more come your way. Weaker now and tired, it takes just one more jab of the knife, no bigger or more profound than the one before to take you down. Satisfied, the microaggressors put their knives away. They leave you to bleed, quiet, out of sight, and alone.
Homes England’s stance on diversity in the workplace states:
We welcome everyone who believes in our mission and shares our values regardless of their age, belief, disability, ethnicity, gender identity, maternity status, pregnancy, religion, sex or sexual orientation. We want everyone at Homes England to thrive, and this means feeling that they can bring their whole self to work and feel a sense of belonging, knowing that they can play an important part in fulfilling our mission.
This policy was far from the reality of working there. I will not go into every detail of my grievance with Homes England, but constructive dismissal through racism, bullying and harassment and its effect on my health were at the core. They took three months to conclude I’m ‘thin-skinned’ and they’re not racist. I raised a claim with the employment tribunal. On legal advice, I tried to settle with Homes England, and ACAS put a proposal forward. I explained that I was not ready to enter another company and it would take me at least a year to find a permanent job. They ignored it.
Around the same time, a recruitment agency approached me to work on a contract for Salesforce. With no chance of settling anything with Homes England, I put on my personality mask to hide the trauma and got the job at Salesforce. I resigned from Homes England in March 2022.
A couple of months later, Homes England responded to the employment tribunal preliminary hearing intending to damage my character. I was worried the stress would jeopardise my new job. But that didn’t matter as Salesforce, who turned out to be working with Homes England, abruptly ended my contract. This was shortly after a chat about the tribunal and microaggressions.
Salesforce said they were ending my contract because of a recruitment freeze. But a statement on the Slack messaging app about hiring said: “We hired 20,000 employees over the past year and are hiring another 4,000 employees this quarter alone. Business travel remains an important part of how we serve our customers.”
Hmm, this did not tally. The next excuse was to move the headcount for my (maternity cover) role to the Nordics.
Racists do not like to be called racists. They take offence. They are outraged. They are indignant. They say all lives matter. But what they mean is their lives matter more. Racism is systemic. It is insidious. It is stealth. It is malevolent. It is conscious. It is excused.
Racism is not always a black-and-white thing. Black, brown, or white people will collude to exclude when it is mutually beneficial.
Racism and bullying, and harassment at Homes England were no secret. These behaviours topped the list of complaints in the people survey every year. And the leadership would say we must fix this each time and then do nothing. These free comments from Homes England’s people survey 2020 and 2021, and an email from the CEO about the people survey after I joined in 2018, reflect the work environment:
Help to Buy 2020 Staff Survey Action Plan, July 2021 – free text comments.
Employees were asked if they had witnessed or experienced bullying or harassment in the workplace in the last 12 months, and a third said they had.
Bullying & harassment
Homes England People Survey 2020 – free text comments
Homes England People Survey 2018 – email sent by CEO
I tried to make a difference to help improve discrimination and joined the BAME Network around George Floyd’s murder in 2020. The Network members were committed and passionate but frustrated and tired of the lack of progress and support. They asked me to help with the communications strategy, and I proposed several activities, including an anti-racist pledge campaign that employees and partners sign up to. While the network was happy with the strategy, few activities materialised as the corporate team was told to intervene and take over. It was more of the same with Black History Month; we were contained, restrained, and closely watched.
I reported unfair treatment and a higher level of scrutiny and challenge than my white peers, which started from day one at work. When I applied for the role of Head of Marketing and Communications for Help to Buy, it reported to General Manager, now called the Director of Home Ownership. When I started, my reporting line had changed to a Head of the Team on the same level as me. No other Head of the Team who joined before or after me was made to do this. While my line manager and General Manager were supportive, I was positioned as a lesser leader, unlike them and my counterparts. I had an extra layer of scrutiny and approval that would reduce my ability to progress work.
Homes England’s response to this was that:
The change was made as whilst [General Manager] was keen on having a Head of Marketing/Comms reporting into him, there was a resistance to any other Executive than [chief executive] having a Head of Comms reporting into them, therefore [general manager’s] preferences was against policy.
My role was created to improve the marketing and communications for Help to Buy: Equity Loan. Customers had started paying interest on their loans for the first time, and Homes England received many complaints and negative media attention. Misleading advertising of the scheme was also widespread.
Customers and others complained that the poor writing style, confusing legalese, and jargon in the homebuyers’ guide, customer letters, and the many websites and social media channels made understanding how the scheme works difficult. The content of these communications was created by operational, policy and legal colleagues with no training in communications. The job presented a huge communications challenge, and I was up for it – I was excited to be part of the team. But for some, the feeling was not mutual.
A few months after I joined, General Manager who had created and championed. My role left unexpectedly, to the delight of some colleagues. And things got worse for me. In every meeting, my professional judgement was challenged. I was talked down to. Talked over. Talked about. Dismissed. Excluded. I went from confidently talking through ideas and proposals to barely talking. I was depressed and stressed, gaining weight and getting pains in my chest. When an interim director arrived, I was at the end of my six months probation and ready to resign.
The new director looked at my communications strategy, initial plans, and the changes I had made so far. He said he could see my wings had been clipped and supported my communications strategy. He asked me stay on. He changed the structure so that I reported to him – no mention of this being against policy. While I still encountered blockers and resistance to any change, I was able to make progress and build my team.
When two new colleagues (one the other black woman) joined the leadership team on temporary contracts, the director arranged for us all to have sessions with an independent HR consultant to address the issues. It helped. He was an ally – I thought. I trusted him. But I was still experiencing daily discrimination from the usual suspects, and it was a free for all for anyone who worked for them or with them. I was assumed to be less educated, qualified, professional, and knowledgeable – just less everything.
The pain I was getting in my chest, which started months earlier, got worse. I struggled to breathe, walk and climb stairs, but I pushed on as we went through a large procurement. About a year in, I collapsed with a pulmonary embolism (PE) and almost died. Research shows that stress and anxiety can cause blood to coagulate. As my PE was unprovoked – not caused by surgery or deep vein thrombosis – it was stress that nearly killed me.
I was off work for four weeks when I agreed to a phased return. I felt pressured to return as they said the team was struggling. It was busy, but our communications efforts were starting to work, and there was less pushback with my two white direct reports covering some of my meetings. I, on the other hand, experienced more of the same treatment. And shortly after my return to work, a routine doctor’s appointment led to me being signed off for work again due to stress and dangerously high blood pressure.
When I returned a second time, I was determined to be my authentic self, to be strong and confident and keep doing my job to the best of my ability, and I did precisely that. I even took on a struggling customer experience team on top of my existing role and made it a success. But the haters hated what I had to say when I dared to propose some well-researched alternative cost and time-effective ways of doing some digital work. I was branded aggressive and uncollaborative. I flagged my concerns about their plans with my new line manager (Mr., it’s no more racist here), and he said he shared these concerns. He managed to get some of the plans scrapped – that’s the power of the privileged man.
Throughout my time at Homes England, I tried to simplify the language used in Help to Buy customer communications to make this complex financial product easier to understand. Most Help to Buy customers are young first-time buyers with less disposable income. They cannot afford to make mistakes with their finances. Despite proposing well-researched, tried, tested and cost-effective solutions to resolve complaints or confusion, they refused to simplify language and processes, claiming they would put them at risk. The changes I proposed were to improve clarity and not to change legal terms, which were left untouched.
In response to my grievance of being subjected to greater scrutiny than my peers, they said:
The Claimant wanted to change the documentation wording, putting it into what she saw as plain English. However, the Legal Department, not the Claimant, had the responsibility to approve the appropriate wording for such material.
They did not see me as an equal – they believed they were experts in my profession and theirs. I advocate plain language, so I signed the Help to Buy team up to corporate membership of the Plain English Campaign. Most team members did plain English training, and we set about rewriting communications and creating multi-format digital content. We worked closely with policy and legal and eventually achieved the Crystal Mark for Plain English for the Homebuyers’ Guide. This was shortly after the new chief executive joined, and I was surprised and delighted to receive a handwritten note from him in the post.
I recently had a meeting with [director] regarding Help to Buy. He mentioned to me with pride our plain English crystal mark accreditation – and that you were instrumental in this. Can I just say how powerful such things can be to a first-time buyer customer and very well done. Thank you for your commitment and energy.
Shortly before leaving Homes England, the results of the customer survey I commissioned confirmed that my perseverance to improve communications had worked. IFF Research interviewed 981 Help to Buy customers and split them into groups based on how long they had their equity loan. Group 1 (1-3 years), Group 2 (4-5 years) and Group 3 (6+ years). They reported that customer satisfaction was significantly higher (75%) among customers in Group 1 compared to customers in Group 2 (50%) and Group 3 (53%).
One research finding captured current feelings and attitudes towards Help to Buy. It revealed that newer customers were satisfied with the scheme overall, longer-term customers were less so (reflected in negative NPS Scores for 3+ years). The satisfaction and Net Promoter Scores are heavily influenced by perceptions of how well customers understood the loan at the at the point of taking it out. Customers in Group 1 were most likely to recommend Help to Buy, whereas those in Group 3 were more likely to give the lowest ratings. Just over half (53%) of all customers in Group 1 had referred to the homebuyers’ guide before taking out the loan. 8 in 10 customers who referred to the homebuyers’ guide said they were either very or fairly satisfied.
The survey confirmed my concerns about gaps in customers understanding of the loan they took out, highlighting the importance of getting the communications right. I hope that Homes England have taken the survey results on board and will champion clearer communications in future – regardless of who is delivering it.
Despite being treated unfairly, I was not in any doubt about my ability to do my job. I am good at what I do, and that is not a brag, it comes from hard work and proven experience over many years. I spent just three and half years at Homes England, and during that time me and my team improved communications and customer satisfaction, reduced complaints and, where it was within our control, minimised negative media. I ‘exceeded’ in my performance appraisal and performed strongly in the assessment centre, including for collaboration and leadership. My team was highly skilled, high-performing, well respected and liked.
In its investigation and tribunal response, Homes England could not attack my work, skills, or capability. So they attack my character. It was mostly the usual diatribe to describe a black woman who speaks up at work: oversensitive, defensive, aggressive, not collaborative. They said:
“…she lacks acceptance of not being afforded complete control, perceives any colleague who does not share the same opinion as her on matters or she does not receive the response she is looking for from them, as bullying her.”
And that ‘ally’ I thought I had, who was now a permanent employee not interim, dug the knife in deep: “This investigation was provided with multiple examples of complaints received by [director/manager] re ND’s behaviours towards colleagues; informal complaints that were shared in exit interviews, colleagues/reports who express fear to push back and attend meetings with her, and others who have witnessed tension between ND and some of her colleagues/reports. [director] shared that ND generally struggled to collaborate with other teams and was perceived as being quite ‘thin-skinned’, and this feedback has been shared with ND.” Sigh…the angry black woman strikes again. I received no feedback, about me.
I did a subject access request to find out what information they did hold about me. They provided details of a grievance from a team member who unfortunately had failed to demonstrate the skills required to do their job and pass their probation. The complaint was against their line manager and me. It was not upheld. There were no other details of complaints or otherwise against me.
In summing up their grievance investigation they callously use my aunt’s death around the time of the grievance, and my close friend’s death during the investigation, as the cause of my troubles as opposed to the three and a half years of race discrimination, they said:
ND speaks of finding her working environment stressful due to the allegations cited in her grievance, and this investigation is unable to draw any conclusions in this respect due to the lack of medical information provided. ND has also experienced significant stress within her personal life due to the passing of a close relative and close friend, both in recent months, along with significant health issues of her own. This level of stress outside of work may well have had an amplifying effect on any struggles that she may be having in the workplace, and this may in turn have had an impact on how she reacts to certain situations.
My medical history is well documented. I have been with the same GP for nearly 20 years, and I had more visits to see them and more hospital appointments and stays during my time at Homes England than in my entire life. I kept Homes England fully informed of my developing health conditions, sharing copies of fit-to-work notices and hospital appointment letters. They never asked for my medical record.
Homes England concludes that:
This investigation is unable to substantiate any allegations of bullying and harassment (including gaslighting) against ND, in respect of her ethnicity or otherwise. In respect of allegations against [two white colleagues], the examples shared were mainly examples of either professional paying the required due diligent attention to their duties in order to ensure optimum risk management for the organisation, and other than due to the nature of ND’s role there is no evidence to support any allegation that she has been subjected to a higher level of scrutiny/push back than anyone else.
The grievance investigation gave recommendations to Homes England on sickness absence, conflict management, and on increasing awareness and sensitivity of everyday language, they said:
This report highlights that over time repeated comments like those considered to be used by [director] within the workplace, may have an increasing effect on those who are sensitive to them, and whilst these comments were linked to one manager, it is unlikely he will be alone in making such “clumsy comments”.
Reading this makes me exhausted. It reminds me of how futile my attempts were to be heard. I was treated as a risk that the professionals doing their due diligence had to contain. And to be honest, as I write this I am seriously contemplating what I will do with the rest of my working life. The thought of stepping into another environment like that one fills me with dread. But I have to keep reminding myself that not everywhere is like that. Now I think about it, the only other similarly toxic place was a real estate company. There is a racism problem in the housing sector.
Anyone who has worked in or with my team will know me as tough but fair. I work to a high standard, which is essential in communications, and I expect the same from my team. I guide, coach, and give direction where it’s needed. I am open, transparent, honest, fun, upbeat, and assertive – I am straight talking. I do not shy away from difficult conversations. Sometimes this means telling someone something that they do not want to hear. I give constructive feedback, and I can take it. There are no hierarchies in my teams, and everyone has an opportunity to shine and develop if they want to.
Some may not prefer my workstyle, but for those who want to do their best work, together, we get great results. I am a decent, kind, and loyal friend and employee, and I are proud to have many former colleagues in my close friend circle. The people who know me know me.
To the aggressors who made my work life miserable and affected my health, you know who you are. You know how you behaved. You may deny my experience and your part in it. You may see yourself as the victim like me. You may tell yourself you are not racist. Or you may learn from our shared experience and become actively anti-racist.
To everyone, when someone talks to you about racism, before you indignantly burst out, ‘I’m not a racist’, stop, listen, and learn. They tell you that what was said or done has left them upset, hurt, angry, confused, isolated, or excluded. It is not about your fragile feelings. They are helping you to learn how to be anti-racist. Be actively anti-racist and show others the way.
Denying racism in the workplace exists, creates a toxic environment where black and brown people are expected to put up, shut up, or get out. We must speak out. We are not ‘thin-skinned’. We rightly expect equal and fair treatment, dignity, and work respect. That’s all.
My advice to anyone experiencing racism, bullying or harassment at work is to report it right now. Raise a formal grievance. Do not opt for mediation as this does not go on the racist’s personnel file, leaving them free to do it again. Keep a log of every racist encounter no matter how small, as the accumulation of these incidents can damage you over time. If your employer fails to deal with the issue, pursue a claim with an employment tribunal. You will need legal advice, but emotional support is important too. I have found amazing anti-racist activists, black professionals and allies on LinkedIn who share similar experiences and offer advice and guidance – I wish I had found them sooner.
Here are a few people and organisations to follow: Sharon Hurley Hall, writer, activist, lecturer and author of I’m Tired of Racism; Lisa Hurley, speaker, activist, writer and author of I’m not yelling; Shareen Daniels, bestselling author of The Anti-racist Organisation: Dismantling systemic racism in the workplace; and Jacquie Abram, anti-racism speaker and author of Hush Money, and finally, Black Equity Organisation (BEO) a new UK based Black civil rights organisation, and Inclusive Employers. There are many more resources out there.
Too many people like me ditch their employment tribunal claims due to stress, fear of losing their jobs, and feeling intimidated by the process. This leaves organisations free to continue their racist behaviours while victims of racist abuse suffer in silence. There’s a gap in the market to provide talking therapy and emotional support on top of legal assistance to people experiencing racism at work. It has taken me a year to talk about my experience without feeling anxious, and I know my outcome may have been very different with more support available.
I have shared this experience about my time at Homes England working in the Help to Buy team between September 2018 and March 2022. There were changes to leadership and teams during this time, and some people have moved on. Homes England has an essential role in ensuring we have the homes we need, and many brilliant people are working to make that happen. But they’ve got a problem, and they need to fix it. If they tackle it and get it right, it will be the place they describe in their ethnicity policy, where people feel that “…they can bring their whole self to work and feel a sense of belonging, knowing that they can play an essential part in fulfilling our mission“.