I’ve been sitting on this for a little while because I wanted to get my thoughts together and not just add to the noise. Any time there’s “drama” with the Royals, it can feel like it’s just noise or just entertainment; something that doesn’t have any real impact on culture as a whole. While that may be true on a certain level (most of us don’t have to worry about funding our security teams!), there are certain aspects of that interview which offer an important lesson about the treatment of so-called “outsiders” in established institutions.
As someone from a similar racial background, it hits close to home both personally and professionally to see the discourse around the Duchess of Sussex. Of course, from the outside, it’s impossible to know for sure what’s happened and we’ll be learning more as time goes on. But, as an EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) consultant, I thought this would be a great opportunity to point to some universal red flags which can be spotted in the Palace’s (and the media’s) treatment of Meghan Markle. The Palace may be a very specific kind of institution, but all institutions need to do better in not only making space for their diverse members, but also making it possible for those individuals to thrive.
I will be looking at some of the most clearly evident red flags, but this is by no means an exhaustive list:
Red Flag 1: Treating Colleagues (of Analogous Job Descriptions & Levels) Differently
It should be obvious that two people with the same (or very similar) jobs should be treated in the same way. But — especially for people with marginalised identities — it very often isn’t the case. Active discrimination, unconscious biases and structural undermining often results in certain individuals being held to much higher standards than others. A very neat example of this sort of singling-out of a particular person, is the contrasting coverage of Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton in newspapers and magazines. More formally, the couple were told that certain rules would be changed so that their family would not have the same access to protection as would usually have been the case. This kind of behaviour can severely undermine the success and mental health of those on the receiving end of it, as well as the team of which they are a part.
Common office examples include:
· Lower tolerance for mistakes
· Unwillingness to provide training/ instruction to certain team members
· A disproportionate rate of disciplinary proceedings
· Dismissal of achievements
· Failing to accommodate for individual needs
Red Flag 2: Isolating people from a team
One of the most important aspects of a cohesive working environment is individuals working as a team. The dangers of the isolation of someone who is supposed to be an accepted and supported member of a team is shown very clearly in the division we now see between the Sussexes and the royal family. From the perspective of the royals, the very public fallout from the situation has once-again sparked the conversation as to whether the monarchy itself should be allowed to continue.
This serious undermining of the structural integrity of “the Firm”, is mirrored on an individual basis. Both Meghan and Harry spoke about how they were told to avoid making certain appearances, to avoid being “over-exposed”, effectively isolating them from any support network they may have had. They were also separated from the rest of “the Firm” through being pitted against them in the press, to evidently negative results.
As work represents such a high percentage of our lives, it is fitting that it is an institution which seeks to combine work with family that provides a model of a dysfunctional workplace. Being unhappy at work has the potential, as we have seen, to completely drain the joy out of life.
· Being excluded from social events
· Allowing or participating in gossip
· Lack of standardised treatment for team members
· Failing to accommodate for individual needs
Red Flag 3: Expecting “Diverse” Individuals to Change to “Fit In” to the Organisation’s Culture
We often focus on the “diversity” and “equality” portions of EDI but, to understand the reasons behind the failure of a lot of teams, we have to look at “inclusion”. Often, a mistake that organisations make is assuming that the goal of EDI is to get everyone to adjust themselves to align with the values and standards of that team. But it is that instinct which is responsible for a lot of inclusion failures. To expect an individual to change everything about themselves, often in favour of more “societally acceptable” (and explicitly westernised and classist) standards of behaviour can be seriously psychologically damaging. It also prevents people from bringing their own individual take on their tasks, which negates any benefits of hiring people for who they are. Diversity is not just beneficial in the sense of the psychological lightness of letting people be themselves, it also allows for novel and varied solutions to problems, something that benefits institutions of all kinds.
We see this in the situation with the royals very clearly. Instead of benefitting from the influx of positivity and modernity, which followed the second royal wedding, the backlash from the family’s falling out has reflected poorly on the institution.
· Banning of personalisation of desks
· Inflexibility in relation to cultural or personal commitments
· Lack of internal feedback channels
· Excessive commentary on an individual’s differences
· Encouragement of group activities of a certain type (for example, only having team socials around sports activities or drinking)
Red Flag 4: Not Taking Mental Health Seriously
It should go without saying that people in good mental health find it easier to do their best work. But that doesn’t stop organisations from putting insurmountable amounts of pressure on their employees and not taking that into account when standards start to slip. A Deloitte study found that poor mental health costs employers up to £45 billion each year, with 1 in every 6.8 people reporting that they experience mental health problems in the UK. Beyond the implications for the quality of work, poor mental health has a profound impact on our ability to function as people.
As Meghan Markle shared in her interview, without proper mental health provision, she was left in a position in which she no longer wanted to be alive. No one deserves to be treated like that. Respect for mental wellbeing really is and should be the basic level of consideration afforded to people. Whether in or out of established institutions.
Ways to support mental health of employees:
· Not fostering a perfectionist atmosphere
· Company-sponsored counselling
· Provision of mental health days
Red Flag 5: Starting a Disciplinary Proceeding to Undermine a Complaint
In order to have a functional organisation, it’s important that individuals can voice their concerns and defend themselves from ill-treatment. But it’s also the case that institutions often seek to protect themselves over their employees. So, instead of investigating poor management, they focus instinctively on damage control. One common way of doing this is weaponizing pre-existing disciplinary procedures against any employee who files (or seems likely to file) an official complaint. In so doing, they ensure that nothing will be productively resolved. Having a culture of open and honest communication, coupled with a policy of real accountability is necessary for a successful working environment. Defensiveness is not conducive to a productive working environment.
Ways to avoid combative workplaces:
· Establishing and enforcing informal complaints/ comments procedures (especially for lower ranking employees to feedback on seniors)
· Avoiding annual-only feedback/ appraisals (these can consolidate issues as they discourage consistent feedback)
· Mentorship schemes
· Visible accountability for senior employees
These are not the only red flags which were visible in both the interview and the general press surrounding Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s distancing from being working royals. However, they do illustrate some common and damaging pitfalls that many organisations experience when failing to deal with their employees effectively.