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Combatting racism in the workplace

No sector, including construction and floorlaying, can afford to ignore discrimination in the workplace – with racism back in the spotlight after the controversy at Yorkshire County Cricket Club. Tina Chander explains.

CRICKETER Azeem Rafiq’s recent account of the upsetting racism he suffered at the hands of his colleagues while playing for Yorkshire County Cricket Club, has once again seen what is a particularly complex area of employment law thrust back into the spotlight.

By downplaying the accusations as ‘friendly and good-natured banter’ that didn’t warrant disciplinary action, the club now stands accused of institutional racism and faces certain reputational ruin all for failing to protect Rafiq while he simply went about trying to do his job.

The story serves as a cautionary tale to others to not underestimate the importance of keeping racism at bay, in sport, but also more widely throughout the employment landscape, no matter what the trade or industry.

It’s undoubtedly an emotionally charged issue, but ignorance is no justification. Here we delve a little deeper into how business owners can better acquaint themselves with the legal technicalities of tackling racism at work, while also advising on what can and should be done if any employees do fall victim to discrimination or harassment in the workplace.

How is racism defined by the law?
The Race Relations Act was introduced in 1976 and forms a fundamental part of the Equality Act 2010. Within it, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) developed a code of practice which, while non legally binding, does provide a behavioural framework for employers and employees to follow.

The act outlines several types of discrimination as they apply to nine key protected characteristics, one of which is race:

  • Direct discrimination – Being treated less favourably than another because of race
  • Indirect discrimination – Where workplace policies place someone at a disadvantage due to their race, eg, banning certain headwear that is worn for religious or cultural reasons
  • Associative discrimination – Treating an individual less fairly because they spend their time mixing with people of a certain race
  • Perceptive discrimination – Treating someone less fairly because it is believed they are a different race, even though they’re not
  • Racial harassment – Compromising an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating, or offensive environment by repeatedly targeting an individual’s protected characteristic(s)

How is racism impacting the workplace?
Financial News suggests the number of race-related employment tribunals in the UK rose by 48% in 2020. It’s a trend that has been evident for many years; with 2,036 cases in 2017, growing to 3,641 by 2020.

Misjudged, spirited verbal exchanges between colleagues are a frequent catalyst for race discrimination claims. Suggesting that racist remark made in the workplace is purely ‘banter’ is a harmful assumption to make.

Irrespective of intention, any remark with racial connotations will have the potential to cause anguish. Not acknowledging this fact, failure to focus on the impact the comments may have had on the recipient, or not taking decisive action to prevent any such activity could be incredibly costly in the long term.

How can employers protect themselves?
It’s imperative that employers implement cohesive inclusion and diversity, and grievance policies targeted at preventing harassment or discrimination.

These documents should highlight a strict zero-tolerance approach along with appropriate mechanisms for reporting any incidents of inequality, racism, or discrimination. It should also outline the likely disciplinary action that will be taken against anyone found to be in breach of the policies.

Undertaking inclusivity training with all employees is also worthwhile, covering in practical terms exactly what is meant by terms such as ‘unconscious bias’, as it eradicates any doubt over what behavioural expectations in the workplace are.

How should complaints be dealt with?
A complainant may just request an apology or ask that the situation be monitored. But in the worst cases, the magnitude of the accusation might demand that a formal complaint be lodged, or disciplinary proceedings commenced. It is often most sensible to follow a formal grievance procedure at this point as this will make sure that stringent protocols are met in investigating the complaint.

Where appropriate, the offer of further support should be extended to the complainant – such as counselling through external organisations that provide support to victims of harassment, bullying, and discrimination.

The failure to manage racism
Failure to prevent a culture of racism has the potential to cause irreparable damage to a business. You can of course lose valued members of the team, and possibly also face tribunals, but the immeasurable harm to a business’ reputation could also hit the bottom line hard.

As well as being ethically correct, promoting inclusivity, and protecting your employees is good for business. By holding anyone who participates in racial discrimination or harassment accountable for their actions, employers can preserve not only the mental and emotional wellbeing of their workers but ensure a safer and more harmonious working environment for everyone concerned.

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