What can organisations and people managers learn from Nusrat Ghani MP and Azeem Rafiq’s story?

By Lutfur Ali, Senior Policy Advisor at the CIPD. 

Nusrat Ghani said that in February 2020, a government whip told her "Muslimness was raised as an issue" when she was removed from her Ministerial job. She was told that her “Muslimness was making colleagues uncomfortable”. This prompted Conservative Chief Whip Mark Spencer, to come out on his own volition, to say the claims were completely false. He said Ms Ghani was referring to him and that he considered her allegations to be defamatory. One wonders why he would come out to defend himself on the one hand and on the other attack, if he hadn’t done anything wrong? She had not named him.

Nusrat Ghani said that she also reported the matter to Mr. Johnson directly after losing her job. Mr. Johnson told her he couldn’t get involved. So, here’s the thing – she goes to her boss to complain and he tells her he can’t do anything about it.

After intense public and media pressure, Mr Johnson has recently announced a Cabinet Office Investigation. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on the other hand, has come under tremendous criticism as to why they have not launched their own investigation into alleged anti-Muslim hatred in the Conservative Party after Nusrat Ghani’s claims.

Nusrat Ghani’s experience of course comes hotly on the heels of Azeem Rafiq’s own harrowing evidence to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee last November 2021.  Azeem broke down as he told MPs about the dehumanizing racist abuse he endured during his cricket career. He fought back tears as he described how the word “P**i” was used “constantly” and no-one in leadership challenged it. Azeem, who is Muslim, also told how when he was 15 players pinned him down and forced red wine down his throat.

“I got pinned down at my local cricket club and had red wine poured down my throat, literally down my throat,” he told the digital culture media and sport committee.

He said "I know how close I was to committing suicide during my time at Yorkshire. I was living my family's dream as a professional cricketer, but inside I was dying. I was dreading going to work. I was in pain every day," Azeem’s story highlights how the racism and bullying had become “normalised” at Yorkshire County Cricket Club (YCCC), where: “You had people that were openly racist, and then you have the bystanders.”

Being the youngest captain of Pakistani Muslim heritage, Azim endured decades of racism and islamophobia[1] in the hands of his coach and former teammates. Coming forward with 43 separate instances with seven being upheld by an independent report. He opened the door for several other players to come forward to share similar experiences. Azeem being forced to drink wine is as a form of Islamophobia as drinking alcohol is not allowed in Islam and being called the P word or other derogatory terms because of his ethnicity are racial slurs.

Nusrat, Azeem and the other players experiences are just the tip of the iceberg. Listening to friends and colleagues across the UK including Pakistani and Bangladeshi parliamentarians, school leaders, senior lawyers and prominent community and business leaders, not one person said that they had not experienced some form of racial and religious discrimination in their careers and social life.

All of this serve as a powerful reminder that racism and islamophobia are not only prevalent but are in fact thriving in many of our organisations, society and highest level of government. These are all highly successful and powerful people, by any measure, very much like Azeem. So one can only imagine how much more pronounced it is for the rest of us. Any form of hate, whether it’s based on colour, race, religion, sexuality, gender, mental health, disability, thinking differently, etc. or a combination of all these characteristics (intersectionality), towards a person can at best be very unsettling or at worst physically and mentally damaging and could ultimately lead to tragic consequences.

What is it that stops people of good character, with a strong sense of moral right and wrong, and in powerful and privileged positions from speaking out?  The chair of YCCC Roger Hutton, said he experienced “a culture that refuses to accept change and challenge”. He saw a "constant unwillingness" from top bosses "to apologise and to accept racism”. Even Hanif Malik, a Pakistani YCCC board member, remained a bystander. The Prime Minster in the case of Nusrat said he couldn’t help.

I recall, as an Advisor to the Zahid Mubarak Inquiry, listening to how the 19-year-old Zahid Mubarek, just five hours from being released from Feltham young offenders' institution was battered to death with a table leg by his racist cellmate in March 2000. Robert Stewart, who had "R.I.P." tattooed on his forehead had been placed in the same cell, even though files available to Feltham staff detailed Stewart's violent past and extreme racist views. Stewart, had 18 separate convictions for 71 offences, is now serving a life sentence for Zahid’s murder. Zahid was serving three months - his first custodial sentence - for stealing £6 worth of razor blades. 

The human costs of discrimination bias and prejudice are immeasurable – for how do you quantify a life lost or opportunities to live a full life denied? How do you measure the impact on a family and the wider society?

The costs to organisations are tangible and measurable in terms of reputation, recruitment and retention, performance, and ultimately bottom line. What are then the lessons for employers and people managers? Below are just three:


  1. Have effective harassment and bullying procedures. YCCC’s failure to effectively address harassment and bullying complaints at the time they occurred and subsequent poor response to the independent investigation report was damning. Instead of taking appropriate action, the club downplayed incidents as “inappropriate behaviour” and announced that not even one of its players, employers, or executives would be disciplined for their actions or behaviour. At the heart of an effective harassment and bullying procedure is a zero tolerance and person-centred approach.


  1. Cultivate effective leadership, ownership and accountability. The lack of which has resulted in:
  • Lasting significant reputational damage
  • Resignations from the club’s chief executive, chairman and other board members
  • Sponsors have ended deals with the club
  • Suspended from hosting international matches


This can take years for the club and the Conservative party to recover from. Inclusion confident organisations are open and transparent and take responsibility for mistakes made. They have a willingness to say sorry, learn, change and take the appropriate actions to address and prevent future reoccurrence of incidents.


Building in race and religious equality, diversity and inclusion into the organisations governing documents, business and performance plans, clear race and religious equality, diversity and inclusion targets for system leaders can ensure a high level of ownership and accountability.


  1. Create cultures of trust, inclusion and belonging. A Culture that refuses to accept change and challenge’ evidences the rot and inertia that so often erodes organisations from its core. Creating cultures of trust, inclusion and belonging are vital to colleagues feeling safe and confident in coming forward and believing that they will be taken seriously. This includes:


  • Having a published anti-racism (race and religious equality) policy – embedded in values and strategic priorities of an organisation.
  • Ongoing diversity and inclusion testing/proofing and impact assessing policies, procedures, guidelines, strategies, and practices
  • Ongoing collection of data, feedback and evidence at all levels to identify, measure, monitor and manage blockages, trends and early indicators of the prevalence of bias and discrimination
  • Continuous race and religious equality, diversity and inclusion leadership training for all staff especially people managers
  • Creating safe supportive spaces for people to meet – a place that allows them to have a consistent, clear voice. Encourage non-ethnic-minority active allies to join.
  • Collaborating and co-creating interventions and strategies with people from black, Asian, minority ethnic and other equalities groups and diverse experiences can ensure that solutions are tailored. However, always keeping sight of the intersectional nature of disadvantage and discrimination.


Tackling racism in the workplace | CIPD provides a range of resources and guidance to help organisations and people managers to tackle racism and racial discrimination in the workplace. This includes developing a race and religious equality and inclusion strategy which should be part of a wider equality, diversity and inclusion strategy.

Nusrat and Azeem’s courage in coming forward has paved the way for race and religious discrimination issues to once more come centre stage. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude and must take this opportunity to transform our thinking, attitudes, behaviour and our organisations into places where all people can feel included, safe and thrive.

There are so many parallels with Nusrat’s, Azeem’s and my own experience. Here is a message from us all:

“You made us suffer for our acne and shyness, our age and size, our accent and insecurities, you reviled us and made us feel inferior for the colour of our skin, our faith, our sexual orientation, our mental health, our autism and disability, you looked down on us for our different thinking, our empty wallet and where we lived.  Still, we forgive you but we will not forget”

[1] The fear of, or prejudiced viewpoint towards, Islam, Muslims and matters pertaining to them. Whether it takes the shape of daily forms of racism and discrimination or more violent forms, Islamophobia is a violation of human rights. Council of Europe Definition

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