Sal was first approached to speak at BAME into Leadership through his active LinkedIn account, where he regularly posts about work and issues of discrimination. “I hadn’t heard of the conference before so when they explained what it was, I thought it was fantastic,” he recalls.
Speaking at his first conference, his approach was to just tell his “unvarnished” story: “I was really keen to share what it was like growing up as the first Asian family in a socially deprived Scottish town and the real-life challenges that I’ve faced. We’re not talking about micro aggressions but hate crimes, racism – that was just the constant drumbeat of my childhood and teenage years – and what that meant and how that shaped you for the journey ahead.”
Sal wanted to take the opportunity to show that if he can get to the position he’s in, “there’s no reason others can’t” and after getting the chance to tell his story, Sal said the response he got “was honestly overwhelming”.
He is currently the Regional Director for London at the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) and he also leads his organisation’s work on discrimination nationally. The IOPC is the body that’s charged with ensuring that there’s public confidence in policing and, in Sal’s words, he’s “very privileged” to be in the position he’s in, which is “full of opportunity and potential to drive change”.
“I’ve been doing this job for two and a half years and I’d like to say it’s been a steady, calculated progression of directorships but that would just be a lie. I’ve had to work really, really hard for a long time and create my own opportunities.”
After starting his career in the private sector in Scotland, Sal moved to England some ten years ago and “clawed his way up” through the ranks of the loosely defined “regulatory sector”, progressing from the Audit Commission to the Legal Ombudsman, to Ofqual and finally the Independent Police Complaints Commission (which is now the IOPC). “It’s just been a steady stream of progression for me but it’s been off the back of a lot of hard work,” he says.
“There are no complaints in that from me,” he adds. “I’m in a role now which is a role of real privilege. I was lucky enough to speak about, to use that cliché, my ‘journey’… at the BAME into Leadership conference earlier this year, because, as an ethnic minority, there have been challenges along the way.”
Sal joined the FDA off the back of his first BAME into Leadership conference. A key reason he decided to become a member was his firm belief in “giving back”, which also led him to chair this year’s BAME into Leadership in London, a hybrid event with delegates online and in-person, the first of its kind following the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions.
“Where we are at the minute, some people might make the
assumption that things are much better and you know, things aren’t
where they were in the 70s and 80s when I grew up, but equally they aren’t
where they need to be.”
“I’m a director and when I’m having peer to peer conversations externally, I’m not only the most senior ethnic minority in the room, I’m the only one there,” he explains. “For me it’s about, if you’re in a position of change and you’ve got there, how can you support others on that journey?”
Sal recalls that in his early career “there really wasn’t any diversity in senior leadership roles that you could aspire to, or if there was, it was really by exception”, and so he “couldn’t help but be inspired” by the speakers at BAME into Leadership. While there’s “no magic bullet” in the event, Sal believes it provides “a myriad of positive possibilities”, praising the fact “it’s all about practical tools for people to go and think about” as well as “getting the chance to extend their professional network”.
A lot of feedback Sal received following his contributions to BAME into Leadership was that his story had really resonated with people and many had been through similar experiences, which he thinks is “quite telling”.
“Where we are at the minute, some people might make the assumption that things are much better,” he says. “And you know, things aren’t where they were in the 70s and 80s when I grew up, but equally they aren’t where they need to be.”
A key part of this is the “hidden challenges” that BAME workers face when they are trying to progress. For Sal, these come in many forms, be it around bias, the glass ceiling or cultural issues, which “are all cumulative” and all “take their toll”. In a way, Sal feels it’s “really affirming” that his experiences resonated with so many people but it’s also “really disappointing that so many people are just having the same experiences”.
However, he believes that the events of last year following the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that happened across the world are a “catalyst for change”.
“I’m optimistic,” he continues. “There are conversations we’re having now which we weren’t having this way previous to that. That doesn’t mean the issues weren’t there – the issues have always been there – it’s just given a platform for these conversations to happen.”
Sal Naseem spoke at his first BAME into Leadership conference in March this year.
Sal thinks that there’s scope for this new platform to be reflected in the BAME into Leadership conferences as well as in how the FDA supports its BAME membership, and he’s unafraid to challenge his union to do more. “The BAME into Leadership event I think is fantastic. I think it’s a credit to the FDA. I wish I had it when I was younger but I would say, what is the FDA doing in response to the conversations being had since last year?”
He says he’s “disappointed” in terms of the representation of BAME individuals in senior positions at the FDA but he “doesn’t doubt” the union’s sincerity in its work to improve things – alongside FDA Equality Officer Victoria Jones, Sal has had input into the union’s recently launched BAME members’ development course. The new pilot was developed in recognition of the fact that BAME members are significantly underrepresented among the union’s workplace representatives. “When you become a rep, in whatever workplace you work at, that is a big decision and, if you’re an ethnic minority, to stick your head above the parapet, it’s a harder thing to do,” Sal explains.
The six-part course connects participants with leaders across the union movement and is focussed on supporting members to take a leadership role in their union. Currently aimed at BAME and women members, the union is hoping to run the course for other minority groups in the near future.
Sal says the BAME member-focussed courses are “about improving how Black, Asian, and minority ethnic people engage with their union and trying to bring that diversity through. But there has to be an acknowledgement that there are barriers that these individuals face that are not there for people who don’t come from an ethnic minority background.”
Sal’s well aware that sentiment can be “a divisive thing to hear”, as is evidenced by how it plays out more widely in the “culture wars”. However, he’s unwavering in his assertion that it is “the absolute truth” and he believes “the workplace can no longer ignore difficult conversations about race”.
“I’m optimistic. There are conversations we’re having now which we weren’t having this way previous to that. That doesn’t mean the issues weren’t there – the issues have always been there – it’s just given a platform for these conversations to happen.”
“I’m lucky I work for a really progressive organisation and I see the work being done internally where I work but I think it’s a mixed picture – externally in the private sector but also in the public sector,” he says. “How are workplaces addressing some of the difficult challenges thrown up by last year’s events? Because these are long, long-standing issues. Some workplaces I’m seeing are really grasping the challenge, taking the baton and running with it, committing to initiatives but also tangible targets to improve diversity. Others are maybe just engaging in performative conversations and gestures and there’s no follow through. Then you have others that really don’t get it and aren’t really doing anything.”
Sal strongly believes that “there’s a place to have those challenging conversations” at BAME into Leadership because, while the severity will differ for different people, racism “is the reality for all Black, Asian and minority ethnic people who live in this country”.
Ultimately, Sal argues that it’s in organisations’ best interests to take tangible steps to improve diversity. “If you don’t have the right levels of diversity then people, either willingly or unwittingly, will not be attuned to certain issues because they genuinely will not get it. If you recruit in your own likeness – if you don’t have that diversity – organisations suffer from groupthink and if you suffer from groupthink, you are in an echo chamber and that’s quite a dangerous place to be.”
However, it’s not just about “filling a certain percentage” it’s about “getting representation at the right levels”. Sal thinks the FDA can play a role in improving this, as it’s equipped to “have some of those conversations at a more strategic level” across the civil service around how departments understand issues of race and discrimination and, most importantly, “what are they actually doing about them?”.
“You look across the private sector, you look across the civil service. Are we there yet? We’re miles from it,” he says. “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re less likely to get your voice heard, which is something I’ve learned.”