WARNING: Racism can kill your business!

JANUARY 14, 2016

Recent controversy around hate speech and racism is a warning to business that in South Africa a company’s volumes are not only driven by consumer demand, propensity to spend and the overall economic climate, but by an operation’s ability to transcend prejudice and create an environment that welcomes all groups.

The alert is sounded by Aki Kalliatakis, founder and managing partner of The Leadership LaunchPad, a customer service consultancy that is often called in by businesses trying to grow on the back of service improvements.

“As a business issue, hate can’t wait,” says Kalliatakis. “Companies must tackle this cancer now. A perception of racism, sexism, ageism – any of the divisive isms – can kill your business or a sizeable chunk of it.

“Business needs an ism-proofing strategy, backed by specific guidance to staff.

“The issue should be a major item on the training agenda. Unfortunately, it rarely is.”

Kalliatakis says firing an employee after a racism complaint is belated acknowledgement of the problem.

“Racism at organisational level might cost a business millions in lost revenue before the situation results in a sacking,” notes Kalliatakis.

“The smart thing to do is to sensitize staff to ism-pitfalls before they trip up your business.”

His sensitivity tips include:

  • Don’t use judgmental expressions like ‘you people’ or call women ‘girls’
  • Avoid generalisations like ‘you whites’, ‘you blacks’ and ‘you Muslims’
  • Supposedly chatty names like ‘chief’, ‘mama’ or even ‘boss’ can be taken the wrong way; a polite ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ is almost always better
  • Be aware of body language – rolling the eyes, looking the other way to show disregard and arm-folding in a confrontational manner can be upsetting
  • Showing impatience with one set of customers or apparently giving preference to others can be interpreted as racist, sexist or ageist
  • Speaking slowly and deliberately as though a customer is slow-witted is offensive, especially to older people or those speaking in something other than their home language
  • Tone of voice is key – staff must never sound supercilious or condescending.

Reacting to a customer who appears to be guilty of racism or another ism presents its own challenges.

Where possible, Kalliatakis advises restraint, tolerance and a charm offensive to disarm the customer – usually someone with a problem who reacts “by falling back on ism stereotypes”.

He says response to customers who persistently make hurtful comments should be governed by protocols established in advance with management.

Kalliatakis adds: “Common sense and good humour are always good responses. Overkill by embracing full-on political correctness can also create problems. People should be able to relax in their interaction with business.

“Getting the balance right is a huge challenge and one South African business must face as a matter of urgency.”