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Website URL : http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=5771

Tackling race hate incidents in the workplace

Race hate incidents are acts of violence or hostility against people because of their race and are illegal in criminal law. If these occur in the workplace, they are also unlawful race discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 and can amount to gross misconduct for example, where one employee threatens another employee with physical violence because of the colour of their skin.

Employees expect to be treated fairly and considerately in the workplace. When it comes to issues of race discrimination and race hate, fair treatment is a moral and legal duty and employers have a responsibility to investigate and respond to any issue they become aware of, as well as take all reasonable measures to protect employees from harassment for example, if a customer abuses an employee over the shop counter because of their accent.

Key points

  • Employers should intervene if they see or hear employees expressing or acting on racist views, but will need to be mindful to their personal safety. Incidents should be investigated and handled through appropriate disciplinary measures.
  • Any employee who witnesses anyone expressing or acting on racist views should intervene, bearing in mind their personal safety.
  • Any employee who experiences racism - even if it is not directly aimed at them - should be able to raise their concerns with their employer and expect the issue to be dealt with swiftly and fairly.
  • Any employee who is accused of race discrimination must be dealt with fairly - including a reasonable investigation and if needed, a fair disciplinary process.
  • Employers must take all reasonable steps to protect employees from racial harassment - including from outside sources like customers and contractors.
  • Racist incidents can include employment and criminal law matters, meaning that some incidents should be handled by both an employer and the police.
  • Taking time to learn about different cultural backgrounds can help improve team spirit in a workforce and reduce the chance of misunderstandings resulting in complaints, disciplinary action or an employment tribunal claim.
  • Everyone in an organisation has a role to play in treating everyone with dignity and respect.

View or download the Acas guide: pdf icon Race discrimination: key points for the workplace [396kb].

pdf icon Discrimination: what to do if it happens [435kb] is a step-by-step guide covering how an employee should raise a complaint of discrimination and how an employer should handle it.

Race discrimination can be an employment and criminal law matter

Some incidents of workplace race discrimination - mostly concerning harassment - may become a criminal issue as well as an employment matter. Employers or employees who witness or handle such matters can call 999 or 112 in emergency situations, but in most cases it will be more appropriate to contact a local police station or make a report online, which can be found at www.police.uk.

There are also a number of organisations who can help with this, including:

Although police or court proceedings might be taking place, they should not replace or delay the need for the employment matter to be dealt with. An employer must still carry out investigations into the matter and follow a fair disciplinary process where appropriate.

Supporting the victim

Employers should remember they have a duty of care to any victim of discrimination. Although going through the process is important to get things right, checking to see how the victim is feeling is also very important. They may be badly shaken and need a colleague, friend or family member to help them or they may need time off to recover from the incident.

Racial harassment

Racial harassment can take many different forms, it could be verbal or written comments, violence or the threat of violence. It is important to deal with these issues, not only because of the legal obligations, but also because there could be knock-on effects. A climate of harassment can damage morale generally in all parts of the workplace.

Raising complaints and concerns about race discrimination

There are a number of ways that complaints and concerns about race discrimination can come to the attention of an employer. These can include:

  • an employee raises the matter quietly and informally with a manager
  • an employee raises the matter formally as part of the organisation's grievance process
  • a member of staff or line manager notices behaviour that concerns them
  • if someone witnesses racism in a workplace but does not work there, they can usually raise their concern with a manager or the HR/personnel staff.

If someone feels they have been discriminated against, they may be able to make a claim to an employment tribunal. However, it's best to talk to the employer first to try to sort out the matter informally, in order to minimise the negative effects on all parties involved.

When handling a grievance about race discrimination an employer should:

  • keep an open mind - discrimination situations are often very individual and what may, or may not, be felt to be discriminatory can change over time, and from person to person
  • be respectful and empathetic to the employee who raised the complaint - it can be particularly upsetting and/or stressful to experience or witness discrimination
  • investigate the matter thoroughly and be tactful when looking for evidence that supports or undermines the grievance
  • conclude and/or resolve the matter - remember that an employee who has raised a grievance about discrimination could appeal the decision or take the matter to an employment tribunal if they do not believe their grievance has been resolved adequately.

Investigating the matter

An employer or appropriate manager investigating alleged race discrimination of any sort should take care to deal with the employees involved in a fair and reasonable manner.

The nature and extent of an investigation will depend on the seriousness of the allegations and potential outcome if they are found to be accurate. Any investigation should always be thorough, and for more serious or complex allegations may take up significant time and resource.

It is important an employer or manager keeps an open mind and looks for evidence which supports the allegations as well as evidence which contradicts them. Also, it is vital they keep good records of the process they have undertaken.

Managing cultural differences

Employers should learn about some of the main cultural differences when employing workers who are not British nationals. It can help to understand habits or behaviours which are different. It is good practice to have clear policies and procedures in place to ensure fair treatment for all workers. All employees should be made aware of any policy, and have training to establish a culture of respect and gain an understanding of what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviours.

Unacceptable language and phrases

Employers should be very clear that some language and phrases can cause offence, even if they have been made unintentionally or as a joke. Derogatory terms that refer to race are clearly unacceptable and discriminatory. It is important to keep in mind that the law considers how such words are perceived by those who receive them - and it is usually irrelevant how or why someone made them in the first place.