11/30/2012 10:52 am ET Updated Jan 30, 2013

About Leadership: Discrimination

In the modern corporation there is no place for racial or gender discrimination. This is an absolute. Any CEO, manager, or team leader who tolerates this abuse, or encourages a culture that fosters it, should be removed. So it is very important for us to understand how it manifests itself, and how deeply this weed sinks its roots once you let it get out of control. And while there is overt discrimination that we would all recognize, there are more subtle forms that the leader needs to be very alert to.

What's so hard about this? I think it is that many of us grew up in society where policies, practices and attitudes were far from accepting of black people, women, and others, viewing them as less able to assume the same roles as white males. When I was growing up in New York City, the high school I attended had many black students, but in the honors classes that I took there were virtually none. Black kids were tough, and, in general, we feared them and stayed out of their neighborhoods.

My mother, and the mothers of all of my friends, did not work outside the home. A few had been teachers when they were younger, and then stopped working for good when they had children. As we completed high school, the advisers pushed all the boys towards science and engineering, and the girls towards English and the humanities, telling them to make sure they got some sort of school teaching qualification. This pushing was, fortunately, not always very successful, but it was certainly practiced.

The civil rights movement, and the feminist movement, changed this, and legislation also backed up these changes. When I took my first academic job in New York in the mid-1960s the Department Chair was a woman, and when I took my first job in industry in 1985 my boss was a woman. So things changed, but slowly. In the UK, BP was very slow to hire women in to positions that led to executive roles; before 1974 women were only hired as technicians or secretaries.

But as I said, the manifestation of gender and racial discrimination can be subtle. One of the practices we had in BP in the 1980s was to talk to staff about their 'ultimate potential.' As part of the appraisal process, the manager was to indicate to individuals how far he (almost always he) thought they could progress. Of course this was a very important signal, usually given by someone not competent or skilled to give the signal.

The point of raising ultimate potential here is that in 1990 our HR manager, Lyn Richards, had a quick look at the ultimate potentials of male and female employees at the Research Centre. There was a very clear difference between men and women, and I probably don't need to say it was the men who were seen as getting to higher grades.

When she presented this to the (all male) executive committee, there were loads of suggestions as to how this difference could have occurred, and she was sent back to analyze lots of other factors. And what happened? After every factor was taken into account it became clear that the only reason that could explain the difference was that male team leaders invariably did not see women achieving leadership roles. Once you build something like this into the HR processes of the Corporation, it is pretty easy to predict the result. But unless you are scrupulous in examining and testing your processes for this sort of bias you will find it hard to achieve any sort of diversity goals.

Shortly after I took over as head of the Products Division at BP, one of our junior scientists, of Indian heritage, sent a complaint to the Chairman of the Company, alleging that he had been subject to racial abuse over a sustained period of time. He documented this complaint thoroughly. My first response to this was that it was unlikely, perhaps he was too sensitive, after all in a technology centre people valued brains rather than race, and if he was doing a good job he was likely getting treated properly. On the other hand, if his performance was substandard he might just be getting the feedback he needed to improve. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Over several weeks, together with a senior colleague from HR, we investigated these charges, and what we found was a culture where racial epithets were commonly used in criticizing work, where racist cartoons were placed on his desk, and where he was not given the same access to key clients as white counterparts. Even in talking with us during the investigation, managers and team members made racist remarks without being conscious of what they were doing. So there was a deep disease in this team, which we dealt with, but only because one young man spoke out about it.

What can we do? I came to feel that new team leaders, as part of training for their first management role, needed to spend some time really getting to grips with these issues. To do this, Dorothy Griffiths of Imperial College and I constructed some short scenarios for discussion at the training course for new team leaders, trying to show that bad behavior can be very 'in your face' or it can be much more subtle. This is just one sort of training tool, but it certainly generated some very heated discussion among the course participants, and, I think, served to raise awareness by several notches. At the same time, it is necessary in first level manager training to make the company policy very, very clear, and the consequences of not following it equally clear.

There is also much to be done at the highest levels of the company. When BP merged with Amoco, it soon became clear that Amoco had a much stronger policy of advancing women into positions of responsibility than did BP. Doug Ford, who led the downstream business after the merger, made a real difference in appointments that took place while he was there. And not just giving them key jobs, but always recognizing that talented people could be pushed harder. So Jeanne Johns, who was, at that time, running BP's Toledo Refinery, was clearly a person with strong commercial skills, and he pushed her to take on a lead role in improving commerciality at the Texas City Refinery. One or two people, in the leadership team of a corporation, can make a big difference.

I recall once discussing women in leadership roles with David Sainsbury, when he was running the supermarket chain in the UK. He told me that he had a list in his desk of the 10 or 20 women most important, and of greatest potential importance, to the Corporation. If any of them were to leave, or think about leaving, he had to be notified of this personally, so that he could speak to them. By having this list, he could also think about their careers as key jobs became vacant. Simple? Sure, but effective things almost always are.

About Leadership:
About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership -- essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?