What the rail industry can learn from the Yorkshire Cricket Club crisis


BY Nafisa Nathani

November marks Islamophobia awareness month and with 45% of all recorded religious hate crimes offences in the UK targeted against Muslims, I thought this would be an ideal time to discuss the Yorkshire Cricket Club (YCC) scandal. Cricketer, Azeem Rafiq recently gave testimony in a parliamentary select committee shining light on the poisonous culture of bullying, racism, and islamophobia at the YCC. Many predict, as a result of Rafiq’s testimony ‘floodgates’ will now open of similar cases in different industries. His testimony has been marked as a watershed moment and a wake-up call to organisations on what can happen if you allow a discriminatory culture to flourish within teams unchecked. Given the similarities in demographics between the cricketing fraternity and the railway sector, learnings from the scandal should be looked at to ensure we do not fall prey to a similar fallout.

Culture of denial

The world watched Azeem Rafiq give testimony about his experiences at YCC. Mr Rafiq explained throughout his testimony, the mental anguish he suffered because of racist slurs “P***” being used “constantly” alongside, phrases like “elephant washer”.

Fighting back tears on more than one occasion, he recounted an appalling occasion when, as an aspiring 15-year-old club cricketer and a practicing Muslim, he had been restrained while red wine was poured down his throat by another player. Rafiq went on to outline examples of “racist comments” disguised as “banter”. He describes this as “constant abuse” which led him to “feel worthless and totally isolated”.

Not only did the YCC fail to address concerns at the time they occurred, but its board also repeatedly ignored complaints of racism attempting to silence Rafiq and dismiss serious allegations

Not only did the YCC fail to address concerns at the time they occurred, but its board also repeatedly ignored complaints of racism attempting to silence Rafiq and dismiss serious allegations. This puts a huge burden on the individual, already feeling victimised but then having to stand up against the structures of power within their organisation, in which they are economically reliant on.

The board reacted equally poorly on receipt of an independent report into the matter. Rather than take appropriate action, they downplayed racial slurs as “inappropriate behaviour” and announced that not even one of its employees would be disciplined for their actions. This lack of accountability, ownership and leadership failings resulted in significant reputational damage.

Words matter

Discriminatory complaints need to be dealt with head-on: humanely, swiftly, and compassionately. If claims are upheld but there are zero consequences to flouting such policies like in Rafiq’s case, it renders bullying, harassment, diversity & inclusion policies within the organisation futile. Rather than setting the framework and parameters of respectful conduct, these policies become devoid, perceived as nothing more than a tick box exercise.

Words matter. Many victims internalise discrimination and are incredibly fearful of speaking out, which results in feelings of worthlessness, guilt, anger, and sadness. This also causes mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, stress. loss of self-esteem, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. For any organisation, to justify racial slurs and/or intolerance on the grounds of banter simply doesn’t wash. Rafiq’s testimony demonstrates further, how normalised Islamophobia can be, so deeply engrained in the ritualistic practices of a team bonding session.

Bystander effect

It is incredibly difficult to not just listen to Rafiq’s testimony and see his overt vulnerability and pain but also hear how none of his friends or teammates spoke out. Even when Rafiq raised allegations, many claimed not to have seen anything, with Rafiq testifying that racial slurs were very much part of the culture at the YCC. A phenomenon known as the ‘bystander effect’ may help explain this.

Studies show how unacceptable behaviour in the presence of other people creates a diffusion of responsibility, so individuals do not feel pressure to take action. The responsibility to act is thought to be shared among all of those present combined with a need to conform socially. When other observers fail to react, people often take this as a signal that a response is not needed or appropriate. People then fall into complacency and become paralysed into inaction. Unacceptable behaviours then become normalised.

Listen, learn and act

Ensuring you have a culture in which all colleagues have outlets to call out discriminatory behaviour and are confident in doing so, without fear of reprisals and backlash is a sign of a healthy organisation. This can be difficult to enforce in an environment like the railway, which is endearingly referred to as the ‘railway family,’ given how close-knit teams are. In this environment, many teams operate as local echo chambers unable to see beyond their so-called ‘tribe’. This is not the best environment to even see poor behaviours, let alone call it out.

One way you can create a mechanism to challenge the pervading culture within an organisation, is through the creation of employee networks

One way you can create a mechanism to challenge the pervading culture within an organisation, is through the creation of employee networks. These provide employees with safe channels to express their voice and share their experiences. Within Network Rail, our employee networks are pivotal at not only sharing the lived experiences of or members with the senior leadership, but they are also a mechanism through which the organisation can listen, learn, and act on concerns raised. Tough conversations require openness, bravery, the ability to work through discomfort, express views in a non-combative manner, and to listen and reflect without judgement.

Ensuring these groups are backed by a senior sponsor, provides a framework through which open and honest conversations can take place. It’s vital that conversations take place within organisations, however difficult they maybe, to stamp out prejudice. If left unchecked, non-inclusive behaviours can turn into a poisonous cancer that infects and spreads through the institution, becoming bolder and more aggressive as time passes and ultimately paralysing the whole institution.

Voice to the voiceless

Organisations need to take note of this case. The world fundamentally changed the past two years and the impact of this, should not be underestimated. As a society, we could no longer look the other way to the harrowing realities of racial injustice, institutional abuses of power and gendered violence. In this climate, marginalised groups became tired of injustice. This combined with the power of social media provides a collective voice to those otherwise voiceless, which couldn’t be silenced.

This is the climate in which Rafiq gave his testimony. The YCC vastly underestimated how transformative these changes were. They failed to anticipate the public reaction, outpourings of support and more importantly the fact Rafiq’s testimony would be believed, and people cared. The fact the organisation thought they could get away with driving Rafiq to the brink of suicide rather than do the right thing and reform itself was utterly foolish. This is a warning to all organisations to listen to your employees when they raise valid concerns and not fall victim to such arrogance.

Rafiq has shared his story with the world, it is time for the world to listen. And then more importantly, to act. His testimony is a warning to all organisations particularly the railway where we have such skewed demographics, that in today’s age of ultra-transparency organisations that ignore their employees, do so at their own peril.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nafisa Nathani is Southern Region Lead for Cultural Fusion, Network Rail’s race equality network. Cultural Fusion is open to all those who work in the rail sector. To join, email culturalfusion@networkrail.co.uk