The exclusion

The incident

The narrator tells us:

“This happened in our nursing home approx. 3 years ago. At that time, the employment system and the job centres were running the strong outplacement campaign that all unemployed people should go to work as soon as possible, no matter what challenges and obstacles they may face, such as mental issues, health problems etc. Then we had a younger woman out placed in an internship for 3 months in the nursing home. We received no prior information about the woman from the job centre or from the job consultant in charge. Thus, we knew nothing about her background, her skills, her training needs etc. – before she started in the internship.

Soon I learned about her background, being a refugee from Sierra Leone. Being very experienced conscious and also aware of the civil war in her homeland, I could tell very soon that something was completely wrong. So, I tried to speak to her – not only as a colleague, but especially as her shop steward – in order to uncover a little more about her background and current situation. I got the impression that her marriage was violent and that she – and probably also her husband – was traumatised. It turned out that she had witnessed the slaughtering and beheadings of many close family members before she escaped from the civil war hostilities.

I myself and also the other colleagues in the team soon realised that she reacted quite violently to physical contact and even to close bodily contact without direct touching. It is very common in our working culture that we are touching each other as colleagues. We are for instance used to give friendly hugs, a pat on the back or the arm etc. I guess this is due to the general caring preparedness and caring skills which are a basic part of our professional job as healthcare providers.

Anyway, I noticed that she was startled when a colleague came close to her from behind. She literally moved away, when these daily situations occurred. The colleagues in the team got increasingly annoyed by her reactions. Therefore, I tried to inform them that this may be a traumatised reaction from her violent and tragic past. But despite this knowledge, the colleagues turned their backs on her and agreed that she was simply too strange and difficult to handle.

Consequently, step by step, she became isolated from the team. Nobody asked her to join them in coffee breaks. Even though she was still working in the team, she was literally excluded.

It was noteworthy, though, that her contact with the elderly residents in the nursing home went smoothly. Mostly, she would hand them over a cup of coffee or sit around them, thereby being in a face-to-face position and not a very physical contact. She didn’t take part in washing and personal hygiene tasks.

I realized that the isolated position could not be broken. Therefore, I called the jobcentre and complained about this internship. I told them that it was very unprofessional to outplace a woman with her significant problems and her need for special treatment in a workplace like the nursing home, where physical contact is a basic part of the job performance and the working culture. Shortly after the woman would finalise her internship…”

1. Identities of the actors in the situation

The narrator is an educated nursing home assistant. She completed various management training courses during the years. The narrator worked in the same nursing home for elderly people for many years.

She is in her late fifties and migrated to Denmark in 1972 from Malawi, married to a Danish born husband, she has 2 adult children and a grandchild.

Apart from her full time job in the nursing home, she is a prominent spokesperson for trade union politics in general and especially in different associations for promoting ethnic diversity and ethnic minorities in union politics and working life on equal terms with ethnic Danes. In relation to the union engagement, she was for many years the shop steward in the nursing home as well. She also functions as a mentor for newcomers and foreigners, especially in order to support the integration in jobs and working cultures within the healthcare sector.

Her working place has actually been one of first healthcare institutions that focused on diversity and ethnic equality from the beginning of/middle of the 00s.

The incident took place in a collegiate context. Thus, all the involved actors knew each other, some of them probably for quite some years.

Apart from the narrator, the incident involved a number of people:

A woman aged 35 a refugee from the civil war in Sierra Leone. Sent from the jobcentre to the nursing home for an internship as part of the employment training and employment services. The woman had not worked in the healthcare sector before, neither in Denmark nor in her country of origin, as far as we know. She is married and mother of apparently three younger children. At the time of the incident, she had lived with her family in Denmark for a few years.  The woman caused a cultural shock for her colleagues, because she could not bear to be physically touched. She reacted strongly to any kind of contact – small pat on the back, etc. – which was an important part of the collegiate culture.

6-8 healthcare assistants and healthcare helpers working in the nursing home and forming the professional and collegiate team around the female trainee in the internship. They are all used to work with colleagues with different ethnic-cultural backgrounds. Some of them have an ethnic minority background themselves. The narrator would be their shop steward at the time when the incident took place. The team members caused a cultural shock to the narrator and indirectly to the woman, while the team members were not able to include and support the woman and her anxiety reactions to the touch although they were accustomed to deal with colleagues with different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Their organisational culture and common cultural norms stood in the way of their empathy.

2. Context of the situation

The incident took place in a nursing home for elderly people in the City of Copenhagen.

The incident took place in a collegiate context. Thus, all the involved actors knew each other, some of them probably for quite some years.

3. Emotional reaction

The emotional reaction of the collegiate team would be:

At first, they were surprised, as touch and bodily contact is a fully integrated and regular part of their professional interaction and social conventions.

After a short while, they were confused and perplexed by her violent reaction to physical contact and closeness.

Step-by-step they became increasingly annoyed by her reaction, which they perceived as a personal rejection and an insulting behaviour.

The emotional reaction of the narrator would be:

At first, the narrator felt responsible for building a bridge between the woman and the collegiate team. The narrator felt empathy and concern for the woman and would like the other colleagues to feel the same.

When the colleagues turned their back on the woman, the narrator felt anger, but also powerlessness because of her own inability to change the colleagues’ behaviour and united front against the woman. She felt defeated because the team was not capable of  integrating and supporting the woman.

4. Representations, values, norms, ideas, prejudice: The frame of references of the person who experienced the shock.

The values of equal opportunities, inclusion and respect of diversity.

The narrator did in all her professional life and voluntary engagement defend the values of equal opportunities, antidiscrimination, human rights, inclusion and diversity. Now she is confronted with a situation where colleagues, who usually have a strong notion for inclusion and mutual awareness and sensibility, all of a sudden react in a very exclusive manner. Even worse: they conspire to keep a vulnerable colleague outside their team and community.

This is, no doubt, a very strong attack on her heartfelt values which really determine her general approach to other people. She is accustomed to fight on several fronts for these values and has done a great job in the workplace to promote intercultural understanding and respect for diversity, etc. Until this incident, she had an expectation that the team works acting in accordance with the same values, and now she must face the fact that the flexibility and tolerance are not as heartfelt as expected.

Values of solidarity and protection of vulnerable people.

Likewise, solidarity and protection of vulnerable people – colleagues, users and other groups – are very crucial values for the narrator. Again, she spent a lot of time and personal resources on practicing solidarity and defending the ones who are in a weak, vulnerable and powerless position.

Now she realises that her own commitment is not enough to protect the woman in the internship. She also realises that her colleagues do not necessarily share these values, at least not in all practices. Despite the fact that she is their most trusted shop steward, the narrator has to face the fact that the colleagues will not change their behaviour, even when they become familiar with the woman´s background and dreadful story. Then she realises that she is not able to support and protect the woman alone. Without the colleagues’ active participation and intercultural empathy and understanding, she has to acknowledge that the woman cannot be integrated into the workplace.

5. What image emerges from the analysis of point 4 for the other group (neutral slightly negative, very negative, "stigmatised", positive, very positive, real, unreal) etc?

In the eyes of the narrator, the colleagues fail to be:

  • Tolerant and understanding
  • Caring and empathetic
  • Generous despite own feelings of rejection
  • Showing solidarity
6. Representations, values, norms, prejudice: The frame of references of the person or group that is causing the shock / that caused the shock in the narrator.

From the perspective of the woman in internship, who caused a shock for the colleagues:

It is actually difficult to derive and analyse the values and norms of the woman/female refugee from the incident. We know a little about her traumatic background and experience, but we know virtually nothing about her values and feelings apart from her strong and significant physical reaction on bodily contact. Anyway, we have no reason to connect these reactions with certain cultural values and bodily norms. On the contrary, the bodily contact is an expression of caring and positive mutual awareness in the collegiate culture in which she becomes a part. Furthermore, this collegiate culture also includes other women of African origins, as seen in more Danish studies of foreign women trained to work within the healthcare system. Thus, the bodily aspect of the collegiate interaction would probably not in itself be a cultural shock for the woman. Her violent history would be a much more plausible explanation.

In summary, the woman is against her own will and unintentionally causing a cultural shock from traumatic reasons that she cannot herself control.  At the time of the incident, she is not offered any kind of supportive treatment to overcome the trauma in her body.

From the perspective of the colleagues who caused a shock for the narrator:

Despite their general consciousness and caring attitudes, the colleagues fail to take the new colleague´s bodily reaction into account. They fail to find a common solution to the new colleague´s contact problems. They understand themselves to be part of an interculturally sensitive working culture. But in this case, their personal and shared feelings of being rejected by the woman weigh heavier than their ability to show human empathy and understanding for her trauma and difficult personal situation. The feeling of rejection would be one important part of their reaction. But probably, the woman’s “attack” on their bodily work culture would be another major motive behind their exclusion. The bodily and physical culture appears to be very central and crucial values in the organisational and professional culture, now being rejected by the woman.

Consequently, the exclusion may also be seen as a collective reaction on the woman´s rejection of the personal and professional sensibility they – in their self-understanding – try to practice.  The colleagues feel themselves to be rejected by the woman when they try to be kind and to treat her as they usually treat each other. This feeling weighs heavier than their ability to show human empathy and to understand her trauma and difficult personal situation. In fact, this feeling seems to prevent them from any kind of adaptation to the needs and requirements of a new, vulnerable colleague.

7. Does the situation highlight any problem concerning the professional practice, or in general about the respect of cultural differences in intercultural situations?

The incident would point to the structural lack of competences in the employment and outplacement politics of the jobcentres, as illustrated through:

The perspective of employment service procedures, where the faulty and superficial outplacement process fails to take the woman´s special situation and serious treatment needs into account, thus being responsible for her bad experience and probably deteriorating condition.

The perspective of stereotypes in the employment system, characterised by the generalisation that women from Africa are particularly and naturally skilled in healthcare work and especially in taking care of elderly people.

The perspective of organisational learning and anchorage of intercultural communication and competence.

The incident reflects the need to anchor the mindset and the values of interculturality and diversity as an organisational learning and training process. As a starting point, the narrator is confident that all colleagues are “socialised” to practice intercultural communication and intercultural understanding. However, in this case she is confronted with an opposite reaction and practice in the working environment. She realizes that the intercultural understanding is fragile and only to a limited extent embedded in the organisation and collegial interaction. She also faces the fact that she can only support the woman in the internship effectively if the whole organisation and the colleagues are committed to do so. Without the colleagues’ active participation and intercultural empathy and understanding, she has to acknowledge that the woman cannot be integrated in the workplace.

In summary, the incident would address the perspective of intercultural competences and communication in the working culture and how to make these competences an integrated practice and part of the organisational culture. Thus, the colleagues would still have to train the practice of sensibility, empathy and awareness of the bodily anchoring of terrible and unbearable traumatic experiences as well as different life perspectives. In this particular case, it would seem to be a part of the professional skills.

Displacement of the problem from the internal to the outer lines.

In this situation, the narrator shifts the problem to the jobcentre by complaining about their insufficient and inadequate information about the woman´s personal situation. There would be good reasons for this complaint. But at the same time, by shifting to the job centre, the narrator doesn’t solve the intercultural challenges in the working culture.