The post office scandal sounds like a warning about the backlash of diversity

When the British Post Office looked into a £57,000 hole in the accounts of the Kashmir Gill branch, she was questioned before detectives raided her home. “They followed me home to search the house, look in closets and under the bed,” says the former deputy postmaster general. “It seemed like they were surprised by our lifestyle, which we had honestly earned.”

The 66-year-old, who moved to the UK from India in 1974, wore gold jewelery when she was questioned. Many older South Asian women wear similar accessories – Gill was given hers as part of a wedding dowry – but she believes this influenced how she was perceived by investigators and meant the Post Office hooked on the idea that she stole to fund her lifestyle.

Gill’s son Balvinder, another former deputy postmaster general, says there was a cultural disconnect that contributed to his mother being wrongly convicted. She was one of more than 900 sub-postmasters—individuals who run local branches—found guilty of charges including false accounting and theft, based on data from Japanese company Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon IT system.

“THE [Post Office] they saw South Asians as generators of wealth. Initially they saw it as a good reason to partner with us, but when the situation changed it was a reason to disqualify us,” he says, claiming that the family’s silver Mercedes had been treated with suspicion.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has described the decades-long sub-postmaster scandal as one of the “biggest miscarriages of justice” in modern British history. Financial shortfalls in local branches have led to people losing their jobs, homes and livelihoods. Others were convicted and sent to prison. During extensive investigations and testimony from convicted sub-postmaster chiefs, questions were raised about whether race played a role in convictions and sentencing procedures.

According to a survey of 1,300 people conducted by the Post Office in 2021, more than two-fifths of all sub-postmasters in the UK network are from Asian backgrounds.

Vipin Patel was wrongly convicted of fraud following an alleged shortfall at his Post Office branch. He says the company persecuted him even though he made up for the alleged losses

In March last year an investigation found that Fujitsu support staff had displayed discriminatory behavior when answering calls from South Asian sub-postmasters. “You could hear shouts from across the room saying, ‘I’ve got another Patel scamming again,’” Amandeep Singh, a former call center employee, told the inquest. “They distrusted every Asian postmaster.”

Then documents released last May following a Freedom of Information request by campaigner Eleanor Shaikh revealed that Post Office compliance teams had labeled fraud suspects using racist indicators, including “Indian types/ Pakistani,” “Negroid types,” and “Chinese/Japanese types.”

After a TV drama about the story aired last month, new testimonies have raised similar questions, refocusing attention on systemic inequalities in the workplace – from pay and career progression to penalties for mistakes. Academics and management experts now say there is enough circumstantial evidence to warrant a deeper investigation into the role race and ethnicity played in how the Post Office conducted cases and the broader management lessons it provides .

“White defendants were more likely than ethnic minority defendants to receive a community sentence, rather than a custodial sentence,” says Rebecca Helm, associate professor of law at the University of Exeter, who conducted preliminary research on the issue in the last year. “The data also suggests that where prison sentences were handed down, these were longer for Asian defendants than for white defendants,” she notes. Despite the small sample size of 37 sub-postmasters where information on ethnicity and sentencing was available, the potential differences are “worth monitoring.”

The Post Office said it had a “zero tolerance policy towards any form of discrimination” and had made “significant progress to strengthen” diversity and inclusion within the organisation. Fujitsu also said it “does not tolerate racism in any form” and that its UK subsidiary was “providing full cooperation” with the public inquiry.

The scandal has resonated among some management experts and business leaders due to the recent backlash against the company’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.

“When I think about the Post Office scandal, the fact that so many people involved were from ethnic minorities is sad, but I think the broader lesson is that it could have been any minority group,” says Tazim Essani, director of the Post Office non-executive management and executive coach. “The answer to those who are less interested in DEI is: what kind of society do we all want to live in? What minority group might you be a part of and how would you like to be treated?

Most of the Post Office convictions occurred before a major corporate push for DEI, which accelerated after the 2020 killing of George Floyd.

Between 2019 and 2022, the number of Chief Diversity Officer jobs in the U.S. increased rapidly – ​​by up to 169%, according to the professional social network LinkedIn – more than any other C-suite role, as companies were eager to show a renewed commitment to ensuring fair treatment of employees and creating a more inclusive workforce.

But that momentum has slowed, particularly in the United States, following pressure from right-wing activists and last year’s Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action. A more uncertain economic climate has also pushed some companies to focus on financial returns.

Opposition has grown to initiatives perceived as favoring one group over another, from quotas for ethnic and gender diversity in hiring to training sessions on race. Many were considered performative or linked to identity politics. Last month, hedge fund manager Bill Ackman declared DEI initiatives “racist,” while Elon Musk said they were “anti-merit.” Big Four accounting firm PwC has dropped some diversity goals in the United States.

John Amaechi, an organizational psychologist, says there is “always a level of resistance” to progress and that a change in rhetoric doesn’t necessarily mean companies are reversing course.

But advocates for DEI in the workplace have also called for a rethink away from the parameters of the boxes to be checked in the pursuit of long-term change. “Organizing events and demanding rewards is not a bad thing, but if they don’t make a dent in behavior and culture, they are unlikely to lead to the better results promised,” says Rupal Kantaria, who focuses on diversity efforts at consultancy Oliver Wyman.

Amanda Rajkumar, who joined German sportswear company Adidas as head of human resources in 2021 to address internal turmoil over the company’s handling of racism, diversity and inclusion, says there are lessons to learn from the post office scandal across the corporate world.

Those who deal with people need to “take a step back when they see a wave of suspensions or layoffs. Questions need to be asked,” he says. In addition to seeing layoffs as “fair and fair,” HR people need to do due diligence on trends and data to “really see what’s going on.”

“There needs to be a department that acts with independence and tries to be the ‘conscience of the company’ and I see this firmly as the role of HR,” adds Rajkumar, who was part of an exodus of female leaders from Adidas following a change in the CEO organization last year.

The story also demonstrates the importance of management teams analyzing data effectively and tackling difficult topics. “Why the [Post Office] Does the Council not question the level of fraud involved in all these cases? Fraud is rare in corporate life, so why did senior management think this level of fraud was real and not a sign of a different problem?” adds Essani. “What biases were at play that this situation was allowed to persist for so long?”

These are the questions that sub-postmasters themselves ask themselves. Seventy-year-old Vipin Patel, who was given an 18-week suspended sentence in 2011 after being convicted of fraud following an alleged £75,000 shortfall at his Post Office branch, says the state-owned company has persecuted even though he had invented the alleged losses.

“During the course of the investigation I thought there was some bias,” he tells the Financial Times. “I had already paid them the shortfall. I had made a false confession. I was not a danger to the public. I didn’t think they would take the path of accusation.”

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