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Young People at a Workshop

Boldly Speaking.

WE CAN ALL BE BOLDER LEADERS


"With great power comes great responsibility".  We often attribute this deeply historical quote to Spider-Man, an ordinary kid with extraordinary gifts.  As inclusive leaders, many of us would hesitate to compare ourselves to beloved superheroes.  We go to work, do our job, we strive to bring people along, we do the best we can the most authentic way we can, and we return home at the end of the day.  No gifts.  Nothing special.  We just do what we do.In these times, where injustice and inaction can lead to life or death outcomes, a brand of inclusive leadership is needed that calls us to be allies.  Indeed, great power does come with great responsibility, but as boldly inclusive leaders, it should not require a cape or a mask to do this work well.

 

As I write this piece, I do so on a day where blatant acts of injustice have been met with loud calls for accountability, amidst fears that leaders will fail to take necessary action and change will remain elusive.

For boldly inclusive leaders – particularly those in private, public and non-profit sectors – it is not sufficient to recognize our unconscious bias or be aware of microaggressions.  We need to do the hard work of meaningful change in our organizations.  We need to do what is right for our people, and not just because we are “being nice”.  It is about bringing your whole self – your values, your ethics, your integrity – to the table, just as you encourage others to do the same.  If we want stakeholders to trust us, you need to lead by example.

Of all the headlines dominating today’s news about the power and privilege, it is a story out of London, UK that has me particularly reflective about what it means to be boldly inclusive.  In this case, people are asking corporate leaders to do more, to be accountable, and to be just.

 

Belly Mujinga was a British transport employee just doing her job selling tickets at an outdoor kiosk when, along with another worker, she was allegedly assaulted by a man claiming to have COVID-19.  The two women and a third colleague who witnessed the incident (describing the man as “smartly dressed”, resembling “a lawyer”) reported it to their manager, requesting a call to police as the man had intentionally coughed and spat at them.  According to their union, police were never called.  After reporting to the manager, the women were apparently asked to return to their posts.


Within a couple of days, both women were diagnosed with COVID-19, and sadly two weeks after the incident, on April 5th, Ms. Mujinga succumbed to the disease, leaving behind her partner and young daughter.  An underlying respiratory condition that Ms. Mujinga had previously disclosed to her employer, likely raised her risk of serious illness upon exposure.


In mid-May, the British Transport Police (BPT) launched an investigation, following national outcry and calls for transit workers to receive more protection during the pandemic.  It was at this time that Ms. Mujinga’s employers, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) announced it would be cooperating with the investigation.


Today, the BPT released its findings: “there is no evidence to substantiate any criminal offences having taken place, and the tragic death of Belly Mujinga was not a consequence of this incident”.  The media has reported that the attacker did not have COVID-19, which likely explains the lack of causality.  Still the criminality of the act, as well as why public-facing employees were unprotected remain unexplained.

For what it’s worth, the transport minister framed the situation as a criminal matter, not about staff having more PPE. 


Meanwhile, staff at GTR reporting receiving masks from their employer upon the start of the investigation – approximately 6 weeks after Ms. Mujinga’s passing.

 

Be Accountable

This is a case that, despite any questions one may have about the legal issues around spitting, is an egregious example of lack of leadership accountability.  In contrast, a boldly inclusive leader would do the work of recognizing their power and using their privilege toward allyship for frontline employees. 


Although little is known about her colleagues, Ms. Mujinga is a frontline worker, an African immigrant to UK, and a Black woman.  Each element of her identity is intersectional and places her on the margins of power.  Thus, having a protocol for reporting abusive behaviour was not enough, as she had no power to insist on follow-through on the report. 


Disclosing to her employers an underlying condition was not sufficient, as she had no power to insist on appropriate accommodations.  Without the power to drive a response, Ms. Mujinga was at the mercy of her employers.  She and her colleagues on the frontlines needed allies.

For those who strive to be boldly inclusive, this case illustrates three areas where leaders could have done better:


1)    Advocating for basic personal protective equipment for public facing staff.  This is to benefit the health and safety of all stakeholders – internal and external – while acknowledging the risk that frontline workers are taking every time they come to work.

 

2)   Striving for accommodations (eg. redeployments) for all staff who are at high risk of severe illness.  Again, this recognizes the risk employees are facing, but it also allows organizations to keep their doors open and society moving by retaining talent, while protecting our most vulnerable.

 

3)   Committing to following through.  This means being accountable to staff, taking swift steps to support staff in seeking justice when injustice has occurred in the workplace, and being responsive to their needs wherever reasonable.


Indeed, whether the attacker had COVID-19 or not, reasonable actions should be taken by leaders to help protect and keep safe all stakeholders.  This should be the case even if after we are no longer facing unprecedented times.


This is not about being nice.  It is about doing what is right and showing up for your people. It is ensuring that workers at all levels of the organization are valued, feel safe and are treated with the dignity they deserve.  Of course, the business case exists, but why would recognizing one’s humanity not be enough?

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