At the end of last week, Wales Online was reporting that the Jamaican Bobsled team had commented on the “Cool Runnings” themed carnival float hitting the headlines in Wales. It led us to reflect and consider whether lessons can be learned from such press sensations on how to handle similar sensitive issues if and when they arise in the workplace.
For those that missed the background, it has been extensively reported that a float based on Jamaica’s bobsleigh team from the film Cool Runnings was entered in Aberaeron’s bank holiday carnival fete. The entrants, dressed in costumes and long dreadlocked wigs, had also painted their faces black causing offence to some local spectators resulting in the police investigating it as a “perceived hate incident”.
Although the incident happened outside of the workplace, it is easy to see the potential for parallels in the workplace, where an employee might take offence at something that happens even though the act in question has nothing to do with their own race. Employers often make the mistake of assuming that this cannot give rise to a claim, but in such situations, employee complainants can rely on the provisions in the Equality Act 2010 to claim that they personally have suffered harassment.
Under the Equality Act, race harassment occurs when an individual engages in unwanted conduct related to race that has the purpose or effect of violating another’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. It is possible for a complaint of harassment to be brought by an individual who is not on the receiving end of the conduct but who has witnessed it. Further, the complainant can be a different race to the person being harassed. Applying this to the bobsled case, someone could take offence and claim harassment, even though they themselves are not black.
While you might hope that your employees may show more sensitivity when participating in any fancy dress events or more generally when participating in workplace “banter”, the case does show the potential for claims to arise from “fun” events. If this event had occurred in the workplace, as an employer, you would likely be liable for an act of harassment committed by an employee against other employees.
It therefore demonstrates the importance of why all employees should receive regular equality and diversity / bullying and harassment training and the importance of ensuring that all staff are given clear guidelines about what constitutes harassment (and that managers are trained how to deal with it), as an employer who has taken reasonable steps to prevent it may have a defence.
It also shows that the Equality Act has the potential to extend protection beyond the particular group that you may assume is “entitled” to take offence.