Racial discrimination in the workplace

Eliminating racial discrimination is an important part of running a diverse company, not to mention a compliant one

Racial discrimination is covered under the Equality Act 2010 and is illegal in UK workplaces.

Research also shows a culturally diverse workforce is good for your organisation. When employees acknowledge differences and learn about others’ experiences, productivity and performance increase (Ely & Thomas 2005).

What is racial discrimination?

Racial discrimination happens when an employee feels disadvantaged because of their nationality, colour or ethnic origin. When a person is treated less favourably than another person in a similar situation because of their race or descent, this is classed as racial discrimination.

The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 makes it against the law to treat employees unfairly because of their race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin or immigrant status.

Types of discrimination

Direct racial discrimination happens when an employee receives poor treatment because of their race or perceived race. It can be a one-off occurrence, or a situation that continues over time. If the working environment is consistently hostile, offensive or degrading to that employee, that’s racial harassment.

However, companies sometimes also disadvantage certain racial groups through their policies or procedures. For example, they might require educational qualifications that are not available outside the UK. This is indirect discrimination, even when the bias is unconscious.

Sometimes, the problem doesn’t go away once it’s been reported or addressed. If an employee is badly treated because they’ve made a complaint about racial harassment, this is victimisation.

Signs to look out for

Employees who have been subjected to discrimination will not always come forward, especially if the problem is subtle and they feel it cannot be ‘proved’. It’s therefore important that staff at all levels know how to recognise when racial discrimination occurs, and can support the affected employee.

Behaviours to look out for include:

  1. Derogatory language and name-calling
  2. Failing to promote, reward or hire
  3. Consistently blaming problems on people of other races and nationalities, without grounds

How to avoid racial discrimination

Training courses that educate employees about the importance of racial and cultural diversity are a good place to start.

However, where problems occur, they are often deep-rooted. This means that culture is key to preventing and being aware of racial discrimination. Keep your company open to a racially diverse workforce by making sure that:

  1. recruitment processes treat applicants of all races and nationalities equally
  2. line managers are culturally aware and know how to respond to issues
  3. materials can be provided in languages other than English, where necessary

Exceptions to the rule

At times, your company might need to make rules or decisions that appear to discriminate against certain racial groups — but are allowed under UK law.

For example, a casting company might request that actors auditioning for a black character are of the same ethnic origin. This is an exception from racial discrimination, as long as your company can prove a genuine need.

Dealing with a discrimination claim

If an employee believes they are the subject of racial discrimination — either from your company as a whole, or from another employee — the first step is to try and deal with the conflict internally. Use your formal grievance and disciplinary procedures to investigate, document and hopefully resolve the issue.

If you can’t resolve the problem, it may go to an employment tribunal. It’s best to try and avoid this because it reflects poorly on your company, and also means the employee has to pay fees.

The police may become involved if the complaint includes violence.

Support for employees

Line managers should be the first port of call for racial discrimination problems. They should be trained to understand and tackle the problem in a sensitive way, and to give the affected employee relevant advice. This can be an informal conversation, or the employee can follow your grievance procedure.

In larger companies, dedicated diversity networks can provide support.


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