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Why equality matters

By Ishbel Lapper

Brexit. There, I said it. Whatever your thoughts on the outcome of the great referendum, you can’t ignore it.

Add in the general election and it’s fair to say it’s been one of the big topics of conversation in workplaces up and down the county.

And for employers, that might not be an altogether healthy thing.

Of course, it’s heartening that the biggest political decision in a generation is sparking lively debate amongst ordinary people. That’s good for democracy and good for the political life of the nation.

But when that debate oversteps the mark – as it has sometimes done since the vote was taken to leave the EU – that can spell bad news for employers.

With much of the EU debate focused on topics such as immigration, nationalism and taking back control of the UK, there is plenty of scope for shop-floor disagreements to turn more serious and edge into harassment.

And it is simply not good enough for employers to turn a blind eye when that happens and pretend it’s nothing to do with them.

Employers need to be aware of the risks arising from such harassment and, where possible, should try to address those risks.

For example, race-related comments which are deliberately intended to offend are likely to constitute unlawful harassment. Comments - such as innocently intended observations or shop floor “banter” - which weren’t intended to offend but still do, are also harassment.

That’s because all that is required to make a claim of unlawful harassment is that someone must be offended or feel their dignity at work has been adversely effected.

It’s easy to see how a heated Brexit debate could stray into this territory – and keep doing so day after day in certain circumstances.

What the Equality Act says is that unlawful racial harassment occurs where one employee engages in unwanted conduct related to race, nationality or national origin, and the conduct has the purpose or effect of violating another employee’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

This is a serious issue.

For unlawful racial harassment at work, the employer is liable for an employee’s conduct and the victim has a valid claim against the company. Damages are also uncapped.

So what can you do as an employer to limit your exposure to such a situation?

One straightforward step is to put in place strong guidance on the limits on discussions about the Brexit vote. Tell your employees what is – and what is not – acceptable and that they must stick firmly within these boundaries.

If you have any doubts that this will keep a lid on things, you could always go a step farther and ban such discussions absolutely, especially in workplaces where the risk of causing offence is considered to be high.

It might sound a little heavy handed. After all, what harm can shop-floor banter do?

But when that banter turns to harassment, you want to be certain you did everything you could to prevent it.

It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s also the law.

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