Offside: Tackling Discrimination in Football       

In this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show, I was joined by Tony Burnett, Chief Executive of Kick It Out, to learn more about his mission to address racism within football. Tony talked to me about his aim to tackle discrimination within the sport to make it a safer and more inclusive environment.

To get started, I asked Tony to introduce himself a bit more by telling us who he is and about his professional career thus far.


‘I’m of dual heritage, my dad was from Barbados and my mum was English and grew up in Bolton. I’m a Northern lad, although I’ve not lived there for many years.


I started my career in commercial business in the nineties with Diageo and eventually transitioned into ED&I. My first ED&I role was in 2001 working for the Ford Motor Company. I was the European Diversity Manager there which was challenging because they were under investigation from the old Commission for Racial Equality due to serious issues of racism. Joining Ford at that point was like a baptism of fire.


After a couple of years with Ford, I branched out and worked for myself for eight years. I had a consultancy business working predominantly in the UK and South Africa. I did a lot of work with big organisations, public and private sector, Home Office, Department of Health, various police forces, Kellogg’s, Diageo and Ford.


I also put a lot of focus into South Africa following the Black Economic Empowerment agenda. Although it wasn’t just about supporting people of Black heritage; we covered lots of other protected characteristics too. I carried on working as a consultant in and around South Africa up until the COVID outbreak in 2020. I spent over fifteen years in and out of various roles within South Africa.


After my consultancy business, I became Head of ED&I at Lloyds Banking Group where I worked for 4 years. We had a big focus on empowering senior women within the banking and financial services sector.


Next, I became the Assistant Director ED&I at West Midlands Police which was an interesting role. It was very different to private sector motivations because the whole objective around working in a policing organisation is making sure that the services provided for the community are done in an inclusive way. That was a big learning curve. Then I moved to Kick It Out, where I have been for the last three and a half years working as the Chief Executive.’


I asked Tony, ‘What are some of the most influential ways that you’ve seen businesses make an impact within the world of EDI?’


‘I like a framework. I always think of this world, in terms of three Cs, commitment, capability, and compliance. The first bit in commitment is about senior leadership, which is always kind of trotted out. It’s not about senior leaders signing up to supporting this agenda and then doing loads of good PR.

This is about senior leaders understanding the challenges and drivers for their space and organisation in order to become inclusive and then committing to actions that drive change.


It’s not about attending a Pride event or signing up to an awareness week. It’s being committed to driving the fundamental change mechanisms and systemic changes that are needed to drive inclusion.


Lloyds is a great example. The Chief Executive at the time, António Horta-Osório, got this. He understood it. He was completely committed to it. You could see that in, every action, not just his EDI action plan, but every single time he spoke on anything business related, he knew that inclusion was a core part of it.


The second bit is about capability. For a long time the ED&I space has been unregulated. When you define what a competent ED&I person looks like, it’s often down to the opinion of the organisation on what that job spec looks like and what the capabilities are that support it.


Although there are university courses now around our space, there’s never really been a defined set of competencies around ED&I. That leads to some people being put into positions around our space due to obsessive characteristic or because they’re the loudest person from a particular group in the organisation. That is completely different to having fundamental capability.


The foundational factor about capability is not necessarily understanding difference, because we can teach that. It’s about asking yourself, “Do you as a practitioner in our space, understand what systemic change looks like? Do you understand how to drive change in an organisation?”


If you don’t, the default mechanism then becomes, “We’ll support every awareness week that’s going. We’ll attend events, put on evenings and do awards.” Those things have their place, but it doesn’t drive systemic change.


When I talk about that capability aspect around systemic change, it’s fundamentally about understanding organised systems. You need the ability to unpack the process around how organisations recruit and what the talent management system is like. It will help you understand how you can influence senior leaders to incorporate inclusion within their day-to-day activity and not just as a core part of business. Help them do that in a way that it doesn’t become a separate agenda.


The third C is having a compliance mechanism. It’s part of your objectives and reward structure as a senior leader. There has to be a consequence for not being effective at delivering on the inclusion agenda, otherwise it just doesn’t get done. Whether that’s through your performance management and reward process, or through external measures. There has to be a compliance mechanism to hold leaders to account.


To make an impact in ED&I, organisations need to understand what commitment looks like. They must possess the capability to drive change and have strong compliance mechanisms in place to make sure leaders are held to account for delivering this.’


What Tony is saying resonates with me and relates to my first book, Inclusive Growth. There’s a whole chapter on change. The reason why I wrote a chapter on change management was because I noticed that rigorous change management was often missing in EDI strategies. Organisations often become really frustrated because they weren’t making the desired impact, but it’s because they didn’t have a proper change management process or strategy around what they were trying to achieve.


Tony’s point about compliance and holding senior leaders accountable is brilliant because we know that accountability is a key component to a high performing team. In Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni came up with a pyramid of a high performing team. Then at the top of the pyramid, you’ve got a lack of focus of results or a lack of accountability which indicates how important an agenda actually is to an organisation.


My next question for Tony was, ‘What are some of the exclusionary processes and systems that you’ve seen within the various workplaces that you’ve worked in?’


‘The first example I can recall were some of the challenges that we had at Ford, which were around allocation of jobs. Often there was no clear process around who got various jobs. That led to almost a cartel that was operated in parts of the organisation. I often refer to this example because it is one of the most exclusionary practices I see whether it’s in a truck plant or in leadership positions. We have these same challenges within football and other areas.


When there is no open process for how people can aspire to achieve success or get into a certain role, leadership becomes somebody’s subjective opinion about who’s right for the job. This can lead to exclusion. From a senior leadership perspective, I think this is the biggest challenge we’ve got.


We look at lists like the Fortune 100 and recruitment professionals like Headhunters which tell us that employers want the best ranked people and the top talent internationally. This encourages exclusion because when we look at the last count of Fortune 100 organisations, only seven of them were female-led.


I think we’ve got a myth of meritocracy in this country. If we look at our prime ministers, 40% of our prime ministers in the UK have been privately educated. If it was a meritocracy, that would be statistically impossible. As a practitioner, one of the challenges is to bust the myth of meritocracy. We’re not meritocratic. We are far from it. To drive change, we need to bust that myth and try to make more positions, particularly senior positions, accessible to people from different backgrounds. This will allow us to employ the best talent who aren’t defined by a few specific privileged individuals that tend to re-circulate and get jobs whenever they want them.’


I would fully endorse Tony’s point about meritocracy. When we do training on inclusive recruitment or bias at Mildon, one of our flags is when people say “We run a meritocracy around here. It’s always the best person for the job.”


When we hear that phrase, we always challenge people to give evidence that there is a true meritocracy within an organisation. We ask them to prove that it’s not down to subjective decision making, who you know or who you’re related to in some instances.


Tony agreed, adding, ‘The best example of this I’ve seen is when I was in policing, and we had the old promotion processing. In the West Midlands at the time, for somebody to go through a process they required line manager sign off. We scrapped this because there were some serious challenges in the system. So, we said that anyone who felt they were able to be promoted could apply. All the candidates were put through a detailed and rigorous assessment process with a new group of assessors from different backgrounds who had the right skills and capabilities to help alleviate bias.


It changed the landscape of who was getting through the promotion process because we took out the lack of objectivity. We have line managers who have their own biases and a history of who they do and don’t like. These personal relationships were clouding their view. When you adopt principles where people can share their talents, skills and abilities in an open way it increases objectivity and fairness.’


I completely agree with this point. It’s the systems and the processes that create biases. We as human beings have our biases, and we create systems and processes that adopt them. It’s important that organisations look at their systems and processes and what bias exists within those systems. Then you can redesign them to be a bit more objective.


I also really liked the example that Tony gave, where people in the police force had to have their line manager’s endorsement to get promoted. Making the process more objective systemically by introducing the assessment centres and introducing other people to review those candidates can help alleviate the bias.


Tony agreed and described why thinking about systems is so important. ‘What we do and the change management aspect we’re talking about is systems thinking. We look at systems and analyse where they aren’t inclusive. That’s how we implement change. That requires a certain level of capability.’


I think this point about systems thinking is key. To go back to Tony’s earlier point where organisations just run lots of awareness days or they’ll sponsor a Pride float, organise an event on International Women’s Day, or do a webinar for the UN International Day of Persons with Disability, I’d say it is important to raise awareness about difference, but it isn’t impactful enough if you want lasting change in your business.


You need to be thinking with systems in mind and about the employee experience. You need to be asking, “What roadblocks and speed humps are holding people back or preventing them from either entering your business or getting promoted within your business?” Your job as a HR practitioner is to remove those obstacles as much as possible.


My next question for Tony was when it comes to sport and football in particular, how he is making an impact with Kick It Out?


‘Our mission is straightforward. We want to create a game where everyone feels they belong. We’ve got two main goals. The first one is creating an inclusive culture around football and the second one is representation. We need more people from lots of different backgrounds.


We do a lot of work in areas like education, which is important. For example, we run training courses for players in academies. We also have a fan education programme to try and rehabilitate fans who’ve behaved inappropriately where a custodial sentence or severe punishment isn’t applicable. We’ll put them through a one-to-one training programme so we can educate them on what they said, where that came from and how we can change that.


We try to work with football on a broader level. We’ve got an advocacy team that do a lot of work on things like the online safety bill. One of the big factors that’s driving a lack of belonging for people in football over the last couple of years is the amount of abuse that circulates on social media. We’re trying to hold the social media organisations responsible for trying to stop it from happening, but when it does happen, being more effective in dealing with it.


There are two different cultures operating in football for the men and the women’s game. You can go along to a professional women’s game, and you’ll have a more inclusive experience both off the pitch and in the stands. You’re made to feel welcomed. There’s no abusive chanting amongst the players and the coaches. They can do more from a representation perspective when it comes to people from socially deprived backgrounds, which has an impact on Black and minority ethnic people. However, from a broad perspective, it’s an inclusive environment.


Whereas at the men’s games, I probably wouldn’t want to take my child because I know there’s going to be verbal abuse. There’s going to be swearing and horrific chants related to the referee, the coach and their families. If I look at the environment surrounding the players and coaches. It is very white, heterosexual male, particularly amongst coaches. We’ve got fewer than five Black or Asian coaches in the 92 professional clubs.


Although 40% of players are black, this doesn’t translate into the coaching environment. We’ve had one player in the last 30 years that’s come out and openly identified as being gay. So culturally, I think men’s football has got some real challenges when it comes to inclusion.’


I asked Tony, ‘Why do you think that these two different cultures have emerged from the same sport, despite being so far removed from one another?’


‘The only thing I can think of is the ban of women’s football at an organised level in the UK for 50 years, between 1921 and 1971. I think this has allowed them to develop a culture that is removed from the men’s game. It’s a completely different environment that is far more inclusive. To address the challenges of the culture in the men’s game, the system requires dismantling to get to more levels of inclusion and having the conversation around what is appropriate behaviour amongst supporters.


I speak to people all the time who behave at a football ground in a way that they would never dream of behaving if they’d gone to the theatre and watched a play or if they’re in their own workplace. They go through a tense football match and think it’s okay to shout expletives and abuse people. Every workplace and every organisation seem to have the conversation about what is and isn’t appropriate, but football’s reluctant to have it. You constantly get the retort “Well, football is different. It’s just football.” It’s not. An excluding environment is an excluding environment, and it needs tackling.


I think it’s important to emphasise the ripple effect that what Tony is describing has, throughout society. A couple of years ago during the 2021 Euros, the racism that followed when Black players missed those penalties had a great impact on some peoples lives the next day. The Black players received loads of racist abuse on the pitch and online afterwards. My Black colleague said the following day that she decided not to send her kid to school because she was worried her kid would receive racial abuse on the school bus. That really hit me.


Tony said, ‘That is a great point, Toby. I was there at the 2021 Euros final, and we knew that was going to happen when Saka, Rashford and Sancho missed those penalties.


There were all kinds of issues around the final that we worked with. In football, there’s an organisation called Level Playing Field who do a huge amount of great work on accessibility for people with disabilities. Some of the stories that they shared around the Euro final were horrific. People had tickets stolen from them. We had numerous reports of wheelchair users being tossed out of their wheelchairs and being taken off them when fans stormed the stadium.


The Euros final was horrific from the start. I’d like to say it’s gone away, but we’ve had a situation recently, where, over the weekend the tabloid newspapers decided to pick out the three Black players that were involved in the game and make them the subject of the criticism. It’s irresponsible given what happened at the last Euros. Now we’re going into the next Euros with our press already trying to scapegoat our Black players for criticism. It’s appalling.


It is exacerbated by, not just our press, but also the tone of the dialogue that’s often set by our political leaders when they are talking about anyone with any protected characteristic and their behaviour towards all of us. Some of the dialogue that they’ve used to describe people from different backgrounds over the last few years is appalling and it drives this hatred. It creates a press and a media where they think that is acceptable.


My next question for Tony was, “What do you think is one system change that’s mostly needed to make an impact, whether that’s within the world of football or business?”


‘We’ve got to start at the top. Compliance is important. If I look at something as simple as the Disability Discrimination Act, that act was passed decades ago in 1995. Yet we are still nowhere near effective implementation and compliance with that. That speaks volumes about how serious we are as a society about tackling inclusion.


I think if there’s one change I’d like to see, it starts with getting the implementation and the compliance right around the Disability Discrimination Act. That, as a start point, would show me that society and governments are serious about tackling some of these issues.’


It’s worth adding that although the Disability Discrimination Act was established in 1995, it was then superseded by the Equality Act in 2010. Whilst disability is a protected characteristic within the Equality Act, there was a lot of criticism at the time because the disability part got diluted due to merging into the broader Equality Act.


When you do look at the enforcement of the Equality Act around disability, it’s the duty of the individual to take action. That is really difficult to do if you don’t have the time or the resources to take a business to court. They have a slightly different system in America, where anybody can take an organisation to court if they fall foul of the Americans with Disabilities Act.


There are some high-profile cases of businesses taking others to court over the inaccessibility of their website or their app. For example, Domino’s were taken to court over the inaccessibility of their online ordering system which was a high-profile court case.


I think the way that the dialogue has emerged post Trump in 2016 and post-Brexit is really inflammatory, shaping the way people talk about anyone with a protective characteristic. It is clear that as a society, we lack compassion.


Tony agreed, ‘I think that has to change because without that, the work we do is going to be even more challenging. That tone has to be set by our leaders. Our leaders have a responsibility to change the dialogue around people irrespective of our differences and start talking about inclusion in a way that helps drive the agenda rather than making it far more difficult to achieve anything.’


I think there tend to be a range of responses when politicians say discriminatory remarks and things that create division, rather than uniting us. Some organisations step back and say, “Well, this is the way that the government’s behaving. It’s clearly not important, therefore, we are not going to invest in an inclusive culture.”


Whereas some clients say, “We don’t care what the governments say or do because we know inclusion is important. We’re going to double down on our efforts because we know that as a responsible business, we’ve got a duty of care to our employees to make them feel that when they do come to work, they’re working in an environment where they are respected, feel like they belong and can progress in their careers regardless of what’s happening on the geopolitical scale.”


There was some interesting research that came up recently that said that investment in EDI initiatives and bringing in consultants had decreased. However, it was those organisations that were just focusing on tick box activities that were deciding to spend less. The organisations that are thinking about EDI much more strategically, culturally and systemically are the ones that have increased their investment overall.


Tony added, ‘A few weeks ago, Kemi Badenoch made some disparaging remarks about people who work in our area and various politicians were questioning how much the NHS spent on ED&I professionals. Ask one of our government representatives what they think an ED&I professional does. I suspect they haven’t got a clue what we do on a day-today basis or how it impacts organisations. It’s just an easy throwaway remark.


It’s part of a bigger agenda which demonises the whole area of inclusion. It doesn’t lead to conversations where we should be talking about how we create organisations where everyone brings their best.


If you want to increase GDP, then you want people. You need lots of people from different backgrounds working at their full level of productivity capability. That is only achieved by having inclusive organisations.


If they wanted to pick on a profession, then look at how many PR people are across the public sector, that’s an area we probably want to cut back. Instead of pumping out stupid messages that are not important, invest in areas that are going to drive an output and deliver change.’


To start wrapping our conversation up, I asked what inclusive growth means to Tony.


‘Inclusive growth means having organisations that are openly accessible to people who want to join them, based on having the right level of capability. Have systems and processes in place that allow people to flourish and to achieve their full potential. I’m not talking about everybody being a CEO, but I am talking about everybody having the opportunity to fulfill their potential.


Inclusive growth means that organisations recognise their customers or service users. In a private sector organisation, you have marketing departments that really target people, but also from a public sector perspective, understanding that you’re operating in a diverse world with diverse communities. Create services and an environment that is inclusive, where people have a sense of belonging.


My final question for Tony is related to the work that he does at Kick It Out addressing racism and discrimination within football. I asked Tony, ‘What is your advice to the person listening to us right now on the receiving end of racism and discrimination? Or someone who’s supporting somebody within the workplace who is on the receiving end of racism and discrimination. What’s your advice to them?’


‘My advice would be to report it. Quite often in a football environment, you have a loud spectator who might have had a few drinks before the game and who is being abusive that you may feel uncomfortable directly confronting. So, we have an app online where you can report it and every football ground has a text line you can use now.


Similarly, if you’re in the workplace and you’re being bullied or abused but you don’t feel there’s anyone you can turn to, report it to us. We want to hear from you, and we will take action.


Only one in four people who experience discrimination in and around football report it. Without those reports, we can’t make the case and we can’t help people. Tell us if you’re feeling discriminated against or you’ve witnessed discrimination. Please tell us about it’

To learn more about addressing racism and discrimination in football visit the Kick It Out website.


For more on the work of Toby and his team and to get tailored support for your organisation’s diversity and inclusion journey, contact them through the Mildon website.


Offside: Tackling Discrimination in Football        - Mildon