Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Nigel Fielding (1999) 'Policing's Dark Secret: The Career Paths of Ethnic Minority Officers'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 1, <>

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Received: 09/03/99      Accepted: 23/03/99      Published: 31/3/99


The article responds to the Macpherson Inquiry into the police investigation of the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence by assessing the prospects for the recruitment and advancement of ethnic minority officers in British police forces. It notes the central importance under the common law of a police force which reflects the norms and standards of the community, and traces the relative impact on police/public relations of attempts to change police practice by policy and by statute. It highlights aspects of police culture which have obstructed the career advancement of both female and ethnic minority officers and compares the British experience with that in the U.S.A. A parallel is drawn between the 'threshold' analyses of the recruitment and advancement of female officers as a means to change the police organisation and the conditions under which ethnic minority officers could challenge racialism within the police. The article closes by considering the importance of career progression of those ethnic minority officers who have been recruited, and notes a puzzling lack of research into their career pathways.

Community Policing; Ethnic Minorities; Par Police Culture; Police; Race Relations

Policing's Dark Secret: The Career Paths of Ethnic Minority Officers

The Report of Sir William Macpherson's Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence concluded that the police had displayed 'professional incompetence, institutional racism, and a failure of leadership by senior officers'. The police have long been apt to warrant intrusions into the civil liberties of the public by the argument that, if you have nothing to hide, you have no reason to object to ... the use in court of evidence discovered in the course of illegal searches; the invitation to respond to police questioning without being formally arrested; the abolition of the 'right' of silence, and so on. In a nice twist on this familiar police argument, an editorial in New Nation made the point that police racism is covert and breeds where the public is denied oversight in these terms: 'if you have nothing to hide, then let us see what you are doing and how you are doing it' (New Nation, 22 February 1999). British sociology has a good record of seeking to bring police practices to light. It must also be said that, during the last thirty years, the police have often cooperated willingly with these efforts. The field of police studies has made considerable progress in documenting, analysing, criticising, and making policy recommendations in some significant areas of policework, including selection and training, routine patrol work, community policing, police accountability and management, public order policing, and socio-legal aspects of policework such as police discretion. Some of these areas are sensitive and the police should get some credit for letting us research their work. Latterly we have been able to draw on a growing body of research in the most sensitive areas of policing, such as murder investigations (Innes 1999) and the international policing of organised crime and terrorism (Santiago 1998).

Michael Banton's (1963) ground-breaking research, reported in 'The policeman in the community', featured a prescient interest in community relations. It made much of the need for the police officer to retain close ties with the community s/he policed, comparing the situation in the US with that beginning to develop in some British cities. Thus, social research on British policing has had from the outset a strong interest in how the police relate to minorities, the disprivileged and the marginal. Research by Colman and Gorman (1982) which reported the virulent racism expressed by police recruits, and research by Simon Holdaway which documented racist practice in the administration of 'street justice' in a major British police force (Holdaway 1979; the work was published under a pseudonym), were of a piece with themes present from the outset of this field.

There is little point in attempting to summarise the many subsequent contributions to research on police and race, nor have I said anything about the efforts of sociologists working in ethnic and racial studies. However, the point I do want to make is that the field has long recognised that the treatment by police of minority ethnic groups is of signal conceptual as well as practical importance. This is because the constitutional warrant for policing is based on the doctrine that the police task is only possible under conditions of public cooperation (or 'public tranquillity' in the terminology of Rowan and Maine, the first commissioners of London's police). Problems in the police/public relation will first become apparent in dealings with those whose minority status is visible, and a failure to address those problems will eventually manifest in civil disorder which will in turn make it impossible for police to carry out the business of crime control because the public will not cooperate with their efforts. This approach is rooted in the common law tradition which formed the present basis of the constitutional relations between the police, the law and the State. Thus police racism is not 'just' a problem for minority ethnic group members or for the police.

It has to be said that many researchers share a conviction that the police and the Home Office already know what they have to do to address these problems. It is true that refinements to our knowledge of key aspects of the problem can be made, and I shall focus on one of these in the bulk of this article. But at the broadest level the problems relating to the various aspects of the relationship between police and ethnic minorities are well-understood. The question is what to do about them, and how to go about it.

The matter raises the wider question of the relation between social research and the policy process. There have been cases where police research has very closely informed policy. In the UK, research played a major role in changing interrogation practice, with particular reference to duress, false confessions and interrogation tactics. Irving's study (1980) of the practice and ethics of interrogation influenced the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure, whose outcomes included the major changes embodied in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, and the creation of a Crown Prosecution Service. Research on the interrogation of the mentally ill and vulnerable (Gudjonssen and MacKeith 1982; Tully and Cahill 1984) and the investigation of child abuse cases (Fielding and Conroy 1992) influenced the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice and changes to the Codes of Practice under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.

The significant point is that in these cases research has informed change in the law. It would appear that, cast in terms of sociology's perennial debate about the articulation of agency and structure, change at the structural level - in this case, the legal framework in which the police are obliged to operate - is effective in a way that change at the level of agency - for example, changes in the culture and attitudes of police - is not. It needs to be added, apropos my point about change in culture and attitudes, that the present-day police occupational culture has changed relative to that which I first encountered as a lecturer at Hendon in the early 1970s, if for no other reason than the significant increase in graduate entrants to 'the job'. While this is welcome, it appears that cultural change in itself is unable to eliminate the excesses of blatant racist practice nor the omissions and neglect which are more dangerous and which featured in the Lawrence case. One of the most theoretically-significant studies of recent years, Chan's (1997) research on the New South Wales Police, makes this point, albeit unwittingly (Chan discounts her own evidence of effectiveness at the structural level in favour of the more pessimistic conclusion that neither cultural nor structural reforms can bring about change).

I have suggested that achieving change via culture is unlikely, but that change at the structural level via law may be effective (of course, there remain breaches of PACE and its Codes of Practice, but at least there is now a law to breach, and therefore recourse for those whose rights are abused). Is there not another level of structure than law? There is; organizations may seek to bring about change by initiating new policies. The evidence is that this approach is considerably less effective. The difficulty of achieving change via research-based policy innovation is illustrated by the reforms of police training in the 1980s, which were directly related to counteracting police racism of the sort Colman and Gorman (1982) documented.

In response to such research-based concerns the London Metropolitan Police initiated a new recruit training scheme called 'Human Awareness Training' (later, 'Policing Skills Training'), focussing on self-awareness, interpersonal skills and community relations. Evaluation research found that trained officers received 17% fewer complaints per officer per month of service (Bull 1986). This was a positive but rather modest achievement. It was also the only tangible difference found between experimental and control groups. Other findings suggested real concerns about the effectiveness of the programme, despite the general conviction that this was the most sincere and carefully-delivered effort at reforming training with respect to police/minority relations that had yet been seen in England. The evaluation research revealed that fewer recruits thought they would try to understand minority viewpoints by the end of training, the importance they attached to community relations decreased, and most came to think that racial prejudice came from minority people themselves.

Follow-up research to trace longer term effects (Bull and Horncastle 1989) reported 'social distress and avoidance' and 'fear of negative evaluation' scores diverging substantially from set objectives, no improvement in 'self monitoring' and 'interpersonal relations' (one cohort even showed decreased need to establish satisfactory relations with others), no improvements in sensitivity to criticism or interpersonal threat, and officers coming to value race awareness training less than before. The authors concluded 'there is a limit to what can realistically be expected of training ... The success of (training) in the prevailing cultures of the (force) will require sustaining mechanisms at all levels of the organisation to provide continuous reinforcement' (Bull and Horncastle 1989: pp. 116 - 7).

The view of many in the field was that the case of Human Awareness Training suggested that it was not the content or mode of training which was at fault but the fact that recruit training comes at the beginning of a career whose 'experiential' element soon becomes dominant. Any enhancement in recruit attitudes towards those they policed, especially the minorities who receive a disproportionate share of police attention, was soon overcome by the prevailing culture of the station and the squad car. No recruit wants to occupy rookie status for longer than is absolutely necessary, and preaching the messages imparted in training is not the way to gain esteem in the eyes of more experienced colleagues, many of whom affect, if they do not secretly accept, an embittered perspective on the public. A key point here is that most police work, even that by novices, is not directly supervised. Once the officer is formally accepted into the force, his or her work is largely accountable only indirectly, via paperwork submitted to sergeants or inspectors. Stradling and Harper (1988) showed that recruit supervisors were unlikely to provide guidance on using discretion: half said they were unable to monitor the discretionary enforcement practices of their officers, and the other half drew only on indirect means (paperwork).

In practical terms, then, the constable is much more accountable to the norms of the working culture, its accepted ways of doing things, than to supervisory officers. This presents police management with particular difficulty in implementing change via policy. Managed change via policy is unlikely to work, whereas people do respond to the disruption and embarrassment accompanying high profile prosecutions of miscreant officers. This cannot be said of all areas in which the police organization might want or need to reform, but comparative research suggests that it does apply to dealing with something as deep-rooted, private and consequential as racial attitudes. Apart from the Australian case, we might compare our circumstances to those in the United States. In the furore that inevitably accompanies cases such as the beating of Rodney King we tend to forget the success of some American innovations in policing. Prominent amongst these is the far higher proportion of officers drawn from ethnic minorities compared to European countries. In some US jurisdictions quotas operate. Another key factor is the existence of separate but parallel promotion structures for officers of white and minority ethnicities. Another is the existence of patrol officers benevolent associations (in effect, unions) based on ethnicity.

As someone who grew up in the US during the desegregation period, when the melting pot ideology was strong and the emphasis was on integration, these forms of 'separate but equal development' have uncomfortable resonances. But they appear to work. It may be that they perpetuate segregation in the sense that black and Hispanic officers patrol black and Hispanic communities, but in terms of everyday civil order and crime control, this at least removes race from consideration in cases of maltreatment, abuse of powers and investigative incompetence. They also have the consequence that in some cities, the highest profile job in the force, chief of police, is held by a member of an ethnic minority. This cannot help but send important signals to both the minority and white community.

While comparison is the key tool of sociological inquiry, we do need to beware facile comparison and commending practice in another country simply because it appears to have differently responded to problems we also suffer. The criminal justice field in particular seems prone to hasty enthusiasms, to import ideas and programmes simply because they work (or are said by their advocates to work) elsewhere. Many criminal justice innovations have been imported from the US without it being established whether they really do work in their country of origin and/or whether the conditions they address and the procedures they commend really do translate to British circumstances. One might say this about programmes as broad and, frankly, vague as 'problem-oriented policing' or about developments as narrow as the importing of the American side-handle baton (in relation to which rates of injury to members of the public are already causing concern). The area of police/minority relations is one where we should exercise especial caution. Programmes developed in the US attempt to solve police/minority problems which are not the same as those in the UK. They may have merit but it is a matter to research, rather than one to sign up to as a quick fix.

Thus, comparative research on how another country has addressed a problem we also suffer should begin by identifying the differences in the circumstances of the two countries, in this case, the conditions of the ethnic minorities in the two countries (socio-economic, political, cultural) which affect their relation to the police. One can then identify elements of programmes which relate to conditions and characteristics which do or do not apply in our own case. A related point is that the US is a large country with many jurisdictions, affording much opportunity for intra-national comparison. We need to be alert to variations in programme effectiveness by locale. For example, there is a wealth of comparative research on 'community policing' programmes which gives an idea of the way effectiveness varies according to the particular circumstances of different regions (Rosenbaum 1994). This also enables us to identify factors affecting effectiveness which do not vary by locale and in which we may therefore have greater confidence that they affect programme implementation anywhere (for example, one conclusion of the last decade of research on community policing is that a crucial factor is the commitment and motivation of 'frontline' officers and the backing they get from senior officers; Lurigio and Skogan 1994; Ziembo-Vogl and Woods 1996).

Such considerations are important when considering the way the US has addressed the recruitment and retention of officers from minority ethnic groups. For example, the effectiveness of quotas for proportions of ethnic groups at different ranks may be different in jurisdictions where most of the local minority population is drawn from one ethnic group to those where the minority population is diverse. It should be added that 'effectiveness' here would be construed simply in terms of achieving desired proportions of officers of a given rank drawn from the various ethnicities. Stringent research would also be needed to establish that achieving the desired proportion resulted in more equitable handling of cases as perceived by ethnic minority citizens.

The debate about the allegedly disproportionate involvement of various ethnic minorities in crime has tended to divert public attention from other aspects of police/minority relations. To date that debate has been largely rhetorical because we have lacked the detailed data to effectively compare crime rates by 'race'. Ethnic monitoring is now in place at most key points of the system and research informed by the necessary details is beginning to emerge. It is obviously important to know what presence the various ethnic groups have in committing or being victims of particular kinds of crime. However, this knowledge is unlikely to have a large impact on police practice at the procedural level (investigative techniques are long-established and the social patterns of their application are far less relevant to practice than, for example, new technologies such as DNA-related forensics), although it may lead to re-distribution of police effort (for example, diversion of effort from residential burglary to racial attacks). But one thing that may directly affect police relations with the public is the recruitment of more officers from minority ethnic groups. In the immediate aftermath of the Macpherson Inquiry this matter has achieved considerable attention but it is not a new issue. Forces have been trying for years to enhance recruitment from the ethnic minorities, with a signal lack of success.

It is worth saying a little about the thinking behind the drive for ethnic minority recruitment. Earlier it was mentioned that it is supposed that, if minority citizens are dealt with by police also having a minority status, when things go wrong it will at least be possible to discount ethnicity as a factor. There is a little more to it than this. Britain's common law tradition emphasises that justice should be delivered by people who represent the community, who are acquainted with and share its norms and standards. This is most likely to produce law enforcement and an administration of justice in accord with the wishes of the public and thus to secure cooperation. This approach is not inspired by a pure affinity for democracy and the will of the people. It is also motivated by a drive to secure public compliance with authority, and thus to secure civil order, a civil order preserving the interests of those who benefit from the status quo.

The doctrine also recognises that 'the public' is not homogenous, and that norms and standards change over time. The law and its agents must accommodate such interests and forces of change. Attention to what will reconcile competing interests and maintain the community has implications for the status of the law's officers as well. Thus, under common law, 'the authority of the judge is not as a political decision-maker ... but as representative of the community' (Cotterrell 1989: p. 27). Since custom may change over time so must law, as an expression of that custom, just as the police officer's exercise of discretion must be informed by a grasp of local normative standards. An important influence in bringing to common law a sociological sense of community was Sir Henry Maine, who saw that the prevailing trend was away from legal rights and duties based on the status of individuals and towards transactions based on contractual relationships (Maine 1861). Thus, the common law tradition came to appreciate that society was not the close-knit community associated with common law's idealized past, reflecting the theory of common law's emphasis on 'the vital importance of maintaining law's link with community life' (Cotterrell 1989: p. 51). Here are the roots of police discretion, and the basis of the real case for ethnic minority recruitment to the police.

Discretion is the legal device by which the police officer is granted substantial scope to determine how to respond to public requests for police intervention or to incidents the officer witnesses. Since most patrol is solo or in pairs, and little patrol is directly supervised, this discretion is substantial. The idea of responsiveness to community norms and standards is a device to keep it in check. If the officer's exercise of discretion is in accord with the prevailing norms and standards of the locale it is more likely to be accepted as legitimate. The alternative - an unbending application of the law 'in the books' regardless of local circumstances - is likely to alienate the public. The law cannot be written in so precise a way as to lay down exactly what should be done to address the particularities of each case in which it could potentially be applied. A balance must be struck between the interests affected by particular laws. Someone is needed to arbitrate interests 'on the ground', to decide whether the law applies to a given occurrence, and what to do if it does or does not.

The elevation of discretion is consistent with another trait of the common law, that it is better characterized as a set of principles than a system of rules. Thus, 'to represent it as a systematic structure of rules is to distort it; it is to represent as static what is essentially dynamic and constantly shifting' (Postema 1986: p. 10). While this doctrine is conducive to common law jurisprudence, it is not an unambiguous blessing to the police. The absence of clear rules regulating decisions can arouse public suspicion that the police are abusing their authority. This makes it even more important that officers are accepted by the public as representing the community. It could be argued then, that the system of policing and of justice possesses a set of principles to accommodate the post-war changes in the composition of Britain's communities but that their effectiveness is impaired because the police no longer represent the community and therefore cannot deliver a practice of law enforcement reflecting its norms and standards. There are two very interesting questions here: are white officers indeed unable to grasp the norms and standards of ethnic minority communities? And, are ethnic minority officers by definition better able to represent those norms and standards? We can get some insight into these questions by considering the case of recruitment of another disprivileged group, females.

There are two reasons one might wish to see enhanced recruitment of females into police forces. One is the straightforward reason that this is in accord with contemporary thinking on equal opportunities. Anyone with the necessary qualities who wishes to join the police should have equal opportunity to do so, and, once in, to advance their career in accord with their abilities. The second reason is more interesting. This is that females may actually possess qualities, as females, which can improve the delivery of policing services.

This argument is usually put the other way around in police circles - that the 'special qualities' of females - in particular, their relative lack of physical strength - make them particularly ill-suited to policework. The argument is nonsense. Very little policework involves brute strength and there is evidence that in circumstances where male officers respond by using bodily force female officers respond with more considered, verbal strategies which defuse some situations more effectively than force. Further, there is evidence that, when it comes to fitness, female officers tend to maintain physical fitness and agility more effectively after acceptance onto the force than do men.

But what about the idea that females may improve service delivery? While one should be alert to essentialist analyses, there is some evidence which suggests females may address particular aspects of policing differently than do men. We have already noted a point relating to incidents involving physical interventions. We might also bring to bear the research on 'women's talk' and 'men's talk', research which suggests that the two sexes have different styles of talk, and consequently different ways of relating to other people. Women's talk tends to be cooperative and mutually-reinforcing. Participants take turns talking around a topic, sometimes completing stories or points initiated by others. It is more difficult to identify dominance in such talk. Men's talk tends to be more declamatory, assertive, and abrupt. Talk is a crucial skill in policing (Muir 1977; Fielding 1995). Indeed, many more incidents are resolved by talk-based skills of negotiation than by forceful interventions. We know this from statistical analysis based on direct field observation (Southgate 1986). Such skills are relevant not only to success on 'the street' but in police interrogations. A low-key, non-confrontational and sympathetic manner can be effective with anyone but is crucial with victims, particularly female and child victims. In short, we could make a case that women bring special skills and aptitudes to policing.

But female police, like ethnic minority police, must operate in accord with the established working practices of the organisation and, to some extent at least, in accord with the expectations of the occupational culture. While it is increasingly accepted that the idea of a single occupational culture is obsolete (Fielding 1989), there remain dominant and conventional ways of doing things and of justifying them. To get by in the police environment female police are not free to deliver policing as they see fit but must conform to the conventions. Some follow a strategy we may regard as 'over-compensation', by affecting the manner and practices of their male colleagues (Fielding and Fielding 1992). Moreover, cultural practices emerge from the experiences of members of the culture. In the context of occupational culture, beliefs are prompted by the work. The notion of 'deformation professionnelle' suggests that, whoever does it, the work will give rise to certain common beliefs. As Holdaway (1998) observes, common responses to the work include sharp differentiation of people into pre-conceived categories, unreflective use of typical ideas about appropriate responses to routine situations, stereotypical thinking, and dismissive banter about 'outsiders'. For some, these common responses may overcome affiliations and commitments made prior to joining the police. Where this happens we cannot look to the arrival in the police of female officers to change the way the police deliver their services. While understandable as an adaptation, such officers are unlikely to challenge the established way of doing things.

What might be the circumstances under which female officers could challenge established modes of service delivery? There has been much research on female police, particularly in the US. The argument in this work is that we cannot expect change while women remain a small minority in the force (Brown 1998). It is a 'threshold' argument, suggesting that, once women comprise more than a given proportion of the force (or its patrol section), change will follow. Regarding internal organisational procedures and practices, there will be sufficient women to challenge male officers in their customary practices. Regarding relations with the public, there will be enough women responding to calls and bringing to bear different styles of response for citizens to perceive a change in the way the force operates. Change will have come about. The debate is then about what the magic 'threshold' might be (25% is often cited).

The implications for ethnic minority recruitment are these. We have established that the recruitment of ethnic minority officers is necessary in terms of the common law conception of policing. We have seen that if this is not done the practical consequence will be an unstable, poorly-grounded exercise of discretion. The further consequence will eventually be civil disorder. Of course, we know these things from recent history as well as legal theory. If we assume that members of ethnic minorities can bring new approaches and perspectives to policing, which may better accord with the norms and standards of those they police, we can draw out a further implication from our comparison with female officers. This is that it does not suffice merely to respond to the first reason I offered for recruiting females: the simple equal opportunities reason. Such an argument would rest with the recruitment to the police of ethnic minority people in proportion to their share of the population. But the 'threshold' argument from research on female police suggests that we will not get change in the delivery of police services until recruitment of ethnic minority officers exceeds their share of the population. This is necessary to gain sufficient support within the organisation to challenge accepted practices and attitudes whose effect is racist.

We need to go back now to the questions I posed earlier, whether white officers can grasp the norms and standards of ethnic minority people, and whether ethnic minority officers are innately better placed to represent those norms and standards. Contemporary history offers us instances where the interests of ethnic minority people have been served by white officers, and we might infer from the 'over-compensation' idea that, like female officers, some ethnic minority officers might be more anxious to secure the support of their colleagues than to challenge them by acting in accord with the wishes of ethnic minority members of the public. On the other hand, there are cases where white officers have acted against the wishes and interests of ethnic minority people and we know from legal actions against police employers that there are cases where minority officers have suffered from standing up to abuse by white colleagues. The issue is therefore not one of logical possibility but of the circumstances most likely to bring about policing in accord with the norms and standards of the ethnic minority community. There appears to be a greater likelihood of securing the desired change by recruiting substantial numbers of ethnic minority police than by looking to white officers to change their attitudes or challenge the attitudes of racist colleagues. While this assertion is speculative its likelihood is enhanced by what we know about twenty years of effort to change the practice of policing by changing the attitudes of police officers. These efforts have failed.

There are three crucial problems in the career progression of ethnic minority police: recruitment, utilisation and retention. Limited numbers of black and Asian officers are recruited, those who are recruited are differently deployed in terms of their role and rank compared to whites, and ethnic minority officers resign at higher rates than whites. Existing research has used qualitative methods to document the experiences and perspectives of ethnic minority officers (Holdaway and Barron 1997). Valuable as it is, such work cannot offer a systematic account of the deployment and rank/role disposition of ethnic minority officers relative to their white counterparts. So research has not yet been able to determine the true extent of the obstacles faced by minority officers. For example, we know that there are almost no ethnic minority officers at senior ranks, but we cannot say for sure whether this reflects their abilities or discrimination against them. The data to support such an analysis exists, in the form of returns by forces to HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, and data from the Police Initial Recruitment test and OSPRE (Objective Structured Performance Related Examinations), which shows performance in promotion examinations. Secondary analysis of this data would make it possible to answer whether ability or some other factor is obstructing ethnic minority advancement.

Similarly, using police data from activity analyses, deployment profiles can be extracted by ethnicity and the proportionate distribution of officers in terms of rank and type of deployment can be determined. We know from research on female police career pathways that deployment is important to promotion. Different roles are differently valued when individuals put themselves forward for promotion. For example, one reason offered for inhibited female detective promotion prospects is that they tend to be assigned to cases involving only women and/or children. Promotion boards then challenge their ability to conduct other kinds of investigation and whether their experience is sufficiently rounded to merit advancement.

With ACPO support, my colleagues Jennifer Brown, Jane Fielding and I have now twice proposed research on the lines above, once to the Home Office and once to the ESRC, without success. It is troubling to note that last year the Home Office awarded a contract to carry out a study of career pathways of ethnic minority officers but that the contract was never let. We are told that the Home Office is now conducting research of its own. We hope its findings will be published.

In closing, we might return to the relationship between research and practice. We are all aware that research can be used as window-dressing, a delaying tactic to defer unpalatable action in the hopes that public interest will subside. The present concern prompted by Macpherson's inquiry will not last forever, and the pugnacious response of the Police Federation suggests more is needed than renewed efforts to enlighten police attitudes. This article has suggested that structural initiatives are most likely to bring about the change that is needed. Vigorous legal action against racist police, and recruitment of ethnic minority officers, are commended. It is a view apparently shared by the government. But it must be obvious that the crucial factor is the attitude of ethnic minority people towards a police career. We need to be able to tell them that, if they join, their prospects are only limited by their abilities. We cannot do that without knowing how the organisation has treated the brave few who have already joined 'the job'.


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