Handling Racism in the Workplace

If you’ve read a newspaper, watched TV, or browsed the internet recently, it will have been hard to avoid recent news of Ken Livingstone’s allegedly anti-Semitic remarks and subsequent suspension from the Labour Party. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s ally of 40 years, Livingstone was unceremoniously suspended after claiming that Hitler supported Zionism “before he went mad”. This has sparked a wave of claims that anti-Semitism is a growing problem in the party, something Corbyn has fervently denied. Dealing with these issues on the political stage is one thing, but what would you do if something similar happened in your organisation?

It is no surprise to anyone that racist remarks should be dealt with appropriately in the workplace, but what does that look like in practical terms? It’s probably important to first establish the potential impact that this type of behaviour can have both on your workforce and the company as a whole. If an employee was to make a racist remark in the workplace then this could potentially lead to an affected employee making a discrimination claim to an employment tribunal on the grounds of race, particularly if the business does not take appropriate action to deal with the antagonist. As you may be aware, it is the job of an employment tribunal to decide if an award should be made to the claimant on the balance of probabilities. Without going too far into employment tribunal practices, in discrimination cases this award can be limitless. It’s not just the financial damage that should be taken into account, however. Employee morale is a very real cost when a working environment turns toxic, so it’s important to manage this environment to support a happy, productive workforce.

When presented with an allegation of racism in the workplace it is always important to establish the facts of the case. This is going to involve investigating the issue, and may involve you suspending the potentially guilty party (on full pay) whilst this goes on, much as Mr Livingstone has been. It’s important to note at this point that suspension is not supposed to imply guilt, but is instead used to ensure you can complete your investigation without fear of further conflict in the workplace. Once this investigation has been completed, and you’ve talked to all relevant parties then it will be time to decide if there is a case to answer. If so, then it is highly likely that you’ll need to progress to a disciplinary hearing as most racist remarks will almost certainly fall into the category of gross misconduct (though this is somewhat dependent on context).

For an investigation, disciplinary and potential appeal it is important to utilise your company’s disciplinary policy and procedure, as well as any other policies that are relevant to the situation. In this example you may wish to consult your equal opportunities policy if you have one. Whilst your knee-jerk reaction may be to eject the potentially guilty party from the business at the earliest opportunity you’ll need to ensure your process is thorough and fair, particularly if the employee in question has over 2 years’ service. The last thing you need is for the guilty employee to claim unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal, simply because you chose not to follow your own policies!

It is always advisable to utilise your own internal HR team, or an external agency like RBHR to provide guidance when going through a disciplinary situation with an employee, particularly if the case is complex or contentious. RBHR are able to provide a full range of HR services relating to disciplinary situations, including the drafting of letters or policies, providing support in meetings, and telephone advice and guidance. If you are interested in this or any of our other HR services, then please contact admin@rebeccabevins.co.uk or call 01935 411191.