Samir Patel: Many people cannot bring their whole self to work

27 Sep 2022 Voices

Comic Relief's CEO discusses the racism he's faced as a charity leader and his work to increase inclusivity as an employer

Samir Patel, chief executive of Comic Relief

Comic Relief

When it was announced that I had been appointed as Comic Relief CEO, the inevitable comments started to appear online. Not well wishes or congratulations, but comments about my race, about the colour of my skin. Perhaps sadly, this doesn’t faze me anymore, and some may argue that it’s easy to dismiss as online trolling. But it wasn’t as easy to dismiss the close peer who exclaimed to me: “It’s great they are hiring you, as they probably wouldn’t have a few years ago.”  

The thing about identity is that people will assign you one, interpret it for you, and prescribe meaning to it regardless of what you think. Which is why your own sense of self and identity is so important – the reality is that it’s yours and no one else’s. My identity as a father is as strong as anything else in my life, yet it’s not what people first see. But that sense of myself affects how I live my life. I’m going to prioritise school pickups, the kids’ bedtime stories, etc. That’s who I am. It also means that after-work drink, or evening event, is going to be difficult for me outside of the occasional exception. 

The power of identity is that it shapes your choices and how you live your life. It gives you dimensions beyond the surface. And if you’re a person of colour, it’s inextricably linked to diversity and race. As a child, I was constantly reminded that I was different. I grew up in the American south, in predominately white suburbia in the 70s and 80s. I was called the N-word, told I smelled of curry, asked if I wear feathers on my head, almost everything derogatory you can name. I just wanted to fit in. 

As an adult, though, I often don’t fit in, and I no longer want to. Perhaps this is related to my youth and my identity. As a CEO, I meet with other CEOs, with government ministers, with executives of big corporations. I look different to 99% of them, but also dress differently, speak differently, think differently. And I’m good with that. I like that. I’ve observed that I’m often spoken down to, and some people assume I’m less experienced than I am. But this is what it is, hopefully I’ll turn out to be a pleasant surprise.

I’ve been told I’m unflappable. That’s it’s hard to read me. That I should push back more (such as if someone is challenging me). But I am partly this way because I can take any criticism, because I’ve been told worse, I’ve been called worse, and I’ve experienced worse. I will absorb and absorb pressure. Because I’ve done it all my life. This is all part of my identity. And something I have tried to turn into a positive.

Creating a safe and enabling culture

As an employer, the thought that someone may not feel comfortable to bring their whole self to work is a tough one to accept. But it’s the reality for so many people. For our younger employees in particular, who may still be forming their sense of self, it’s so important to create a safe and enabling culture. I’ve yet to meet an organisation that gets this completely right, which makes sense because it’s a never-ending effort. But an inclusive environment, where people can bring their whole identity to the forefront, is powerful in its richness. 

If you get me talking about my kids, you’ll see a whole different side of me – another dimension. Multiple dimensions are what make us human, and not just employees on a list. Our identities with all of their dimensions are what bind us together, what creates personal connections, and what brings ideas, experiences, and value to the work itself, no matter what that work is. At Comic Relief, we’ve done a lot around diversity, but we are really still at the beginning of our own journey to being a truly inclusive workplace. That’s okay as long as we’re moving forward on that path and staying firmly committed to it. 

When I took this job, what I wish that peer said to me was: “Of course they appointed you. Go on. Smash it. Make it your own.” And that’s what I wish for Comic Relief and any other organisation on a path to a more inclusive workplace. My advice is: “Go on and keep going on.” Expect bumps. Expect criticism. Absorb it. It’s all part of the journey and there is no journey more important.

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