Employers must exercise their responsibility to monitor and clamp down on any increase in bullying or discrimination in the wake of the vote to leave the EU, according to employment lawyers.
With the police reporting that incidents of hate crime have leaped 57 per cent since the EU referendum result was announced on 24 June – and with numerous anecdotal reports of increasing tensions and discriminatory comments in workplaces – employers are being warned not to dismiss potentially serious incidents as ‘banter’ or political discourse.
Glenn Hayes, employment partner at law firm Irwin Mitchell, said employers have a duty to dampen down conflict in their workplace, particularly where it concerns the implications of Brexit for workers from the EU, and should “remind [their] staff to respect each other’s opinions and not allow their political views to affect their work or the relationships they have with colleagues”.
Amanda Steadman, professional support lawyer at Addleshaw Goddard, said: “Employers should be alive to the heightened risk of racial harassment of EU migrants workers since the referendum result [was announced], and should always remember that harassment occurs when remarks have the purpose or effect of violating an individual's dignity or creating a hostile working environment.”
A number of Facebook groups have sprung up documenting an increase in racially motivated incidents since the referendum result was announced and, although many of the most notable reports have concerned public transport or street altercations, there is anecdotal evidence of issues in the workplace too. A British-born, London-based optician told how a long-standing colleague had asked her whether she was worried about being deported. On Twitter, there were reports of employees whose desks had been cleared by colleagues ‘as a joke’ and a woman who arrived at work to be greeted by a Nazi salute.
Hayes said individuals can bring complaints of bullying or harassment if comments are ‘unwanted’ and create a hostile or intimidating working environment, and that it is “not a defence to say that the comments were ‘banter’, that the victim is too sensitive or that the comments were not directed at them”.
He added: “If employers fail to protect their employees, claims could be brought for constructive dismissal if such bullying, or the failure to stop it, leads to a fundamental breach of contract.”
Steadman said employers could also be liable for remarks that have the effect of undermining an individual's dignity at work, whether the comment was intentional or not. For instance, if an employee asks a colleague when they intend to ‘go home’, or similar remarks, however intended, this could amount to discriminatory harassment. “A person may also suffer harassment by association (for example, if an employee is asked about the status of relatives who are EU migrants) or by perception (such as if they are perceived to be an EU migrant when they are, in fact, British),” she said.
Employers must demonstrate that they have taken all reasonable steps to avoid discrimination occurring, and should be carefully monitoring employees’ behaviour towards EU migrant colleagues. Steadman also recommended that organisations “remind all employees of the content of equal opportunities and bullying and harassment policies, and take swift and effective action, formally if necessary, where any unacceptable behaviour is identified”.
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