Race and religion in the workplace

There have been a number of stories this month concerning how race, religion and politics should be considered by employers.

Returning to Brexit (momentarily), some reports show a 57% increase in hate crime following the referendum; perhaps that means that employers should be extra vigilant to ensure that the workplace remains a fair and safe place to work for their employees. Employers are well advised not to treat discriminatory or bullying comments as mere banter and to encourage their staff to respect others’ political opinions and avoid inflammatory Brexit debates, which are more likely to offend and ostracise, rather than encourage understanding.

Social media has already been used to document post Brexit racism in the work place, with examples such as employees coming to work and being greeted with a Nazi salute and another incident of a British born optician being asked by a colleague whether she feared being deported.

Employers are reminded to take the necessary steps to monitor and prevent discrimination in the work place. Failure to do so could lead to claims ; even comments such as a colleague asking another if they intend ‘to go home’ could amount to discriminatory harassment.

With roughly 2 million EU migrants presently working in the UK, more than 12,000 people are planning to stage a ‘Workplace Action’ on the 4th of July in London with the aim of securing ‘legally guaranteed protection’, which suggests that the issue is one that must be taken seriously.

Elsewhere, a recent Belgian case found that where a workplace policy banning outward expressions of religion or political beliefs is in place, then a discrimination claim involving religious headwear will be unsuccessful. The case involved a Muslim contracted worker who had decided to start wearing a headscarf which was held to be contrary to the rules of neutrality applied by her employer. The receptionist was dismissed following her failure to come in to work. She took her claim for discrimination to the Belgium labour appeal court, which referred to the European Court of Justice.

While it was acknowledged that the banning of headscarves could be seen as discriminatory it was held that, in this case, the employer had a policy of neutrality in the work place which it could enforce as long as it was applied fairly. The ECJ reiterated the domestic courts’ duty to strike a balance between an employer’s needs and the rights of the individual in the work place. It remains to be seen whether a policy like this would be implemented and relied on by a UK employer.

Finally, it was reported that an employee accused of making a racist comment in front of other colleagues had attempted to rely on the optimistic defence that he was using ‘street talk’. The employee in the case of Mann v NSL Ltd had used the term “n*****girl” to describe someone with whom he had played darts.

Although Mr Mann had claimed that he did not intend to offend and the employer’s actions were disproportionate, the employment tribunal held that the word used was deemed highly offensive and contrary to his employer’s diversity and equality policy. The dismissal was therefore held to be a fair and proportionate response to an offensive comment given the circumstances.

Dominic Bonham