Looking at Labeling and Diversity: Interview with Philip Patston

Recently, I had to the opportunity to catch up with Philip Patston who is a phenomenal speaker, advocate, and expert on diversity and labeling. Philip is also one of Social Work Helper’s expert columnists who offer readers a global perspective hailing from Auckland, New Zealand. Although he is located on the other side of the world, Philip helped me to realize through his writing and speaking the symmetry we all (human kind) share versus focusing on our differences.

Philip has traveled an interesting path and has seen the world from different lenses such as a counselor, comedian, and advocate to name a few. After viewing his Ted Talk with over 30,000 views, I wanted to learn more about Philip. We had an interesting conversation, and now I am going to share it with you.

SWH: Tell us a bit about your background and what led you into the field of social work?
Philip Patston at Tedx Auckland
Philip Patston at Tedx Auckland

I began a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in Psychology and Sociology aged 18, but hated the University environment, so I quit early in my second year. I then trained to be a phone counsellor and ended up counselling by phone for nine years. I had also been a member of a youth group since my mid-teens and had been “dropped” into leadership roles (e.g. turning up at youth work meetings and being told to get up and speak about the youth group). So I did a lot of youth development work in my late teens and early 20s as well.

Then in 1990, when I was 22, I was accepted onto a two-year Social Work programme which gave me a Certificate of Qualification in Social Work and a Diploma in Applied Social Studies. The programme was known to be quite radical. There were only 40 students per year, half of whom were Maori (the indigenous people of NZ or Tangata Whenua, literally “people of the land”), a quarter Pacific people, and a quarter “other” (known as Pakeha in the Maori language).

It was an immersive bi-cultural programme, deliberately making Maori culture dominant. There were huge conflicts, particularly among the Pakeha group, who felt aggrieved by many processes in which they were not the majority. Being gay and disabled, I was fairly used to not being in the majority, so I was quite comfortable and amused by some of my colleagues’ inability to step outside of the process and learn from the experience of the tables being turned.

During my first year, I did a placement in a government care and protection agency and realised it wasn’t my thing. My second year placement was doing social research on the needs of disabled people for the Auckland Health Board. That turned into a two or three year job. After that I worked for the Human Rights Commission for four years, after which I became self-employed, raising awareness of diversity and doing comedy professionally.

So, I never really got to actually be a social worker! But the Diploma programme gave me a great grounding in radical social theory and direct action. If anything, I was an activist. Running awareness workshops as well as doing comedy, which led me to have a very high profile in New Zealand through television in the 1990s and 2000s, were a great combination of vehicles to create change.

SWH: Would you identify your work as being macro and/or mezzo focused, and what advice would you give other social workers who would like to do the work you are doing?

People have likened me to Nietzsche over the years so, yes, I do work in the macro/mezzo realms, I guess! I think it’s a hard place to feel effective because like any leadership or social change activity, it’s a long game and hard to see any tangible evidence of success. My suggestions for others working in similar spaces? Find like minds and check in regularly. Drink wine. Celebrate any success however small and, every now and then, pretend you’ve had a huge success and celebrate that! Finally, read Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed — the best book on social entrepreneurship and social change ever written.

SWH: Who are some of your biggest influencers in how you filter, provide and give information/advice to others?

Some of my favourite thinkers in the work I do are the authors of Getting to Maybe, Sir Ken Robinson, Brene Brown, Peter Block, Kathryn Schulz, and Adam Kahane. I also love Onora O’Neill’s definition of trust. Another fave is Prof. Brian Cox – he’s a cute, English educational physicist and I’ve used his layperson explanations of entropy and physics to explain diversity and relationship dynamics to school students. Finally, Sue Davidoff and Allan Kaplan, from The Proteus Initiative in South Africa. I’ve worked with them on living social practice twice now and they’ve had a profound influence on the way I work with people about diversity.

SWH: Your Tedx Talk on Labeling was a huge success. What was that experience like and what has life been like after your Tedx Talk?

It was surprisingly intimidating and nerve-wracking. Being a regular viewer of TED Talks, it really felt like I was wheeling into a TED video! Those big red letters and the round red carpet are quite iconic. I had refused to rehearse because as a comedian I would only ever rehearse mentally, so the guys running it (who hadn’t seen me perform) were a bit nervous and told my PA, Wai, who was backstage. Wai said, “Nah. he’ll be fine,” and halfway through they apparently said, “He’s killing.” Wai: “Told you so!”

Probably the most significant thing though was being able to present what I would call my soul work to 2,000 people live, in a funny, entertaining way, and have it videoed and put online under the TED brand so that it’s had over 30,000 views. That’s a great privilege.

Life after TED? Well, I did a conference call with the Diversity Group of IBM in California, which was a bit of a fizzer, and I’ve had a few speaking and facilitation jobs as a result. Not life-changing on the big scale of things, but definitely a highlight

SWH: Are you further developing your work on labeling, and do you have any other projects you are working on or have recently finished?

I recently made a music video about labelling that I’ve used a lot in diversity workshops. Music is a powerful way to simplify topics that can be quite complex, in order to have a conversation about the complexity. I was really lucky to work with an extremely talented musician, Arli Liberman, who put my words to music; and then some friends who run a superb creative agency, Borderless Productions, came up with the concept and produced the video. I’ve also recently finished some work on diversity in the media and co-wrote and published a children’s book.

Right now, I’m in an interesting space of limbo. Apart from running a leadership programme, which I love and is in its fourth year, a lot of my projects have either come to an end or have lost funding (we’re in an election year in NZ so Government funders have become super risk averse, unfortunately). So I’m in a space of seeing where I will be taken next. I’d love to make some more music videos, but they’re quite expensive and hard to get funded, even via crowdsourcing. I funded the first one myself, which meant I had a complete creative license and no accountability — that was extremely liberating!

So what’s next on the bucket list…oh and I started writing a book earlier this year and I am stuck big time. I need to give myself a good talking to and hopefully, I’ll get back into that soon too!

Hiring and Potentially Unlawful Employment Practices

Twice in the last week I’ve been confronted by the issue of asking employment applicants whether they have any health or disability-related needs or requirements. First at a Human Resources Institute diversity event, and then on the application form for a part-time position I have applied for.

The practice seems quite prevalent among employers, who seem unaware that it is a potential breach of human rights. Based on the four years I spent working for the Human Rights Commission, let me explain what the problems, risks and solutions are.

Disability_symbols_16The Problem

Section 23 of the NZ Human Rights Act 1993 states:

Particulars of applicants for employment

It shall be unlawful for any person to use or circulate any form of application for employment or to make any inquiry of or about any applicant for employment which indicates, or could reasonably be understood as indicating, an intention to commit a breach of section 22.

Section 22 of the Act says that, if an applicant is qualified for the particular job, an employer cannot refuse or omit to employ the applicant; offer or afford the applicant or the employee less favourable terms of employment, terminate the employment of the employee, subject the employee to any detriment, or retire the employee, by reason of any of the prohibited grounds of discrimination, of which disability/illness is one.

The employment application I filled in asked:

  • Do you have any health conditions that may affect your ability to effectively carry out the functions and responsibilities of the position you are applying for? If yes, please give brief details.
  • Please list any special requirements, on health or personal grounds, you may need us to consider if you are employed with us.

The Risk

By asking these questions, and by my answering them, the employer puts itself at risk. If I do not get an interview, I may reasonably suspect that I have not been shortlisted because of my answer. I could then complain to the Human Rights Commission that I was not offered an interview because the employer did not want to employ me because of my disability. The onus is on the employer to prove I was less qualified than the person they employed.

Even if I do get an interview but not the job, I may reasonably expect that I wasn’t chosen because of my disability. A further mistake employers make is to ask these questions at interview — again, it puts the employer under suspicion of disability discrimination and, if faced with a complaint, they must prove the person employed was more highly qualified than the disabled candidate.

The Solution

Mitigating the risk is quite simple.

For the candidate:

  • You are under no obligation to answer questions about your health or disability status on application forms, so don’t. I simply wrote, for both questions, “I will be willing to answer this question when and if an offer of employment is made (refer s23 Human Rights Act 1993-NZ).”
  • If you are asked similar question in an employment interview, say the same thing.
  • If you are offered the job, be willing to discuss your needs openly and honestly and, if need be, offer solutions to any problems that may impact on your ability to do the job.

For the employer:

  • Do not ask questions about health or disability status on application forms or in employment interviews.
  • When you come to offer to offer a candidate a position, this is the correct time to ask about health and disability status — for any candidate, as not all illnesses or impairments are visibly obvious.
  • An employer has a responsibility to offer reasonable accommodation of an illness or disability, but only if the accommodation does not cause undue hardship to the employer’s operation or other employees. Accommodations may be things like flexible hours, a slight change in duties or, in some cases, assistive equipment. (See more about being an accessible employer here.)
  • Working out whether an accommodation is reasonable or not can best done in a transparent conversation with the favoured candidate. Remember that, if they are your preferred choice, making changes will be balanced by having the best person for the job. Remember too that a qualified candidate will most likely have developed ways to manage the impact of their illness or disability. Take notes about the discussion, the suggested accommodations, whether or not you consider them reasonable and why.
  • If, after discussion with the candidate you feel there is no way to accommodate their needs without undue hardship, you may need to withdraw your offer of employment. The candidate may disagree and complain, but a clear record of the discussion will help you prove that you have been reasonable in considering the candidate’s needs.

Social media: A Click Between Helpful and a Nasty Place

In late February, social media in New Zealand showed its bitchy side rather than outright bullying, but you have to ask which is worse. Blogs like these by Deborah Hill Cone and David Herkt (you might want to read to the end before you click those links) about NZ/Australian television personality Charlotte Dawson’s suicide demonstrated how easy it is to spit bile from your keyboard behind the anonymous veil of the internet.

Charlotte Dawson
Charlotte Dawson

The insidious side to nasty posts like these is that it’s nigh on impossible to voice dissent. In the virtual economy of click value, no matter what you may say on or about a post, be it positive or negative, you’ve already reinforced its writer or the site’s editor/owner by your mere presence on their site. You’re a “visit” and the more visits, the more popular the post and the higher their rating in the game of internet traffic.

From a behavioural psychology perspective, “reinforcement is a consequence that will strengthen an organism’s future behavior whenever that behavior is preceded by a specific antecedent stimulus (or cue to perform a learned behaviour” (Wikipedia). In other words, the more a post is visited, the more a writer or owner/editor is likely to publish another one because visits provide positive reinforcement (or reward) for writing.

Positive reinforcement may also include a comment saying, “Nice post,” or a Facebook Like etc. Reinforcement can also be negative (we’re now in the theory of operant conditioning, but don’t sweat the lingo). Negative reinforcement is where “the rate of a behavior increases because an aversive event or stimulus is removed or prevented from happening”. This is almost impossible in social media as the medium requires active involvement, whereas negative reinforcement requires a somewhat passive engagement (or stopping doing something to increase a behaviour).

The other side of operant conditioning is punishment, both positive and negative. Positive punishment “occurs when a response produces a stimulus and that responses decreases in probability in the future in similar circumstances.” In social media this may mean a “thumbs-down” on a blog post or a negative tweet. If the writer/editor/owner cares what you think, it may be constructive — otherwise it’s just more positive reinforcement by way of your visit plus everyone else’s who responds to your tweet.

Negative punishment, on the other hand, “occurs when a response produces the removal of a stimulus and that response decreases in probability in the future in similar circumstances.” This is, ironically, the hardest and most effective form of moderating unsavoury social media. It means removing the thumbs-downs and negative comments. Harder still it means resisting clicking on those links — we all want to gape at the awful things someone is saying — and sharing them. But its effective because it removes the visits that create such valuable virtual real estate.

It’s all very tricky because, often, we can’t tell the quality of a post by its title. What it takes though, I think, is a commitment to boycott sites that produce unsavoury content, no matter if they also produce good stuff. Just like you’d stop having a  beer with the nice guy who occasionally beats his wife. So I unfollowed @nzherald and @publicaddress after I first published this post, with a link to it as explanation.

When it comes down to it, it’s about recognising the troll and not feeding it.

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