Transformation – A Dish Best Served with Forethought and Sensitivity


While issues of transformation and race are uncomfortable topics for many of us, the fact is that they need to be acknowledged, understood and dealt with in the workplace, especially in the SA context. Marlene Potgieter is an experienced labour lawyer with a special focus on mediation and resolving labour disputes. We share here an article she wrote on how best to tackle certain challenges around diversity and potential misunderstandings that can arise in the workplace.

Imagine the scenario of a young black graduate working as an intern in a corporate who earns the nickname of a cartoon character. At first she thought nothing of it, but on realising it was a cartoon baboon, she became hurt and angry and filed an official complaint. The HR manager reacted immediately, and disciplined the managers who used the derogatory term.

The managers responded defensively, saying they used the name as a term of endearment and meant no offense whatsoever. Under the spotlight their resentment grew and the intern, who rightfully wanted the regrettable name to disappear from their vocabulary, suffered hostility from her humiliated supervisors, whose jobs were now threatened even though they had meant no offense or ill-will. Arriving at work daily took every ounce of courage she had. This is every CEOs worst nightmare.

At the heart of this situation lies an opportunity for learning. In my 30 years of experience I have come to believe that race issues are never resolved through disciplinary processes, which only serve to polarise people, leaving bitterness in the wake. It is infinitely preferable to create a dispute resolution mechanism through mediation, preferably one that enables people to look each other in the eye.

Racism – whether deliberate or unintentional – infringes on a person’s dignity, affecting their psychological construct. In mediation, the visceral hurt can be seen and understood by the person who has caused the pain. When the rawness of the injury they have caused is seen first-hand, a shift can take place in a person’s world view. In many instances, a giant step towards healing can then be facilitated.

Disciplinary processes, on the other hand, tend to keep people stuck in entrenched positions, with their arms folded. From a position of being punished, the person’s humiliation feeds a vicious cycle. Nobody can shift, and resolution is unlikely.

Taking things a step further, think how much easier  it would be to be pro-active when dealing with issues of transformation and racial understanding. Imagine how much less heartache  there would be if such a scenario never develops in the first place. The effort that you as a business owner take to cultivate a culture of sensitivity, mindfulness and dignity for all personnel pays dividends over and over.

Instead of fighting damaging fires that could leave a scorched earth policy both within the team and even on social media, it makes sense to celebrate, recognise and nurture the vital and vibrant differences that enrich a diversified work force. Practically, this can be done through vision sessions that influence a team to collectively choose policies and practises that enhance the collective wellness and success of the whole staff, and through other tools such as mentorship, cultural exchanges and even sensitization workshops that are geared to helping diversity and multiculturalism to take root and become the norm in your business. This is the Rainbow Nation, after all.


Marlene Potgieter

Marleen Potgieter is a labour lawyer. She is the author of Social Media and Employment Law and co-author of Unfair Discrimination in the Workplace. Follow her on Twitter (@MarleenRing) and Facebook, or visit her website, Equity Works.