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Mind your language

Mind your language

We have come a long way since the 1970’s and 1980’s when programmes like the Benny Hill Show, Mind Your Language, Love Thy Neighbour and Are You Being Served were broadcast and littered with references, jokes and banter about women, old people, sexual orientation, race and colour of skin. What was considered to be comedy back then would be viewed as discriminatory in 2016.

When we commissioned Independent Research (amongst more than 1,000 employees of all ages across the UK) this year on language in the workplace the results were alarming 5 in 10 employees aged 25-34 (4 in 10 amongst other age categories) had heard discriminatory remarks at work (comments which could cause offence because of somebody’s age; disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation).

The research found that nearly half of all employees (46%) hear discriminatory remarks on a weekly basis and this rises to 7 in 10 employees (72%) on a monthly basis. Verbatim remarks regarding discriminatory comments included: “Women are only useful for wearing skirts”; calling an older colleague a “dinosaur”; referring to Pakistani workers as “ragheads”; stating “Muslims are terrorists”; calling a black person a “darkie”; and stating “I hate all queers”.

Despite over 40 years of legislation, to pave the way for a more tolerant and inclusive society to tackle discrimination in the workplace from the Race Relations Act in 1976 to the Equality Act in 2010 – are businesses and their staff still caught in a time warp? Why are UK employers in 2016 failing to tackle discrimination or mitigate the risk of discrimination in the workplace?

The reality is current legislation alone can’t change attitudes and practices at work. It is up to employers to adopt a zero tolerance approach to acts of discrimination in the workplace. Having an equal opportunities policy, anti-harassment policy and/or a dignity at work policy is a good starting point. But it is not enough for employers to simply pay lip service to these policies. Many workers are not even aware these policies exist in the workplace and those that do may not appreciate what they say or do is unlawful. It is vital regular training and education about these policies takes place and permeates to everyone in the organisation, so they have a much better understanding about what is unacceptable behaviour.

Perhaps for the Equality Act 2010 to be really effective and combat discrimination, it should be a legal requirement for all employers to: have anti-discrimination policies in place and that set provisions must be included in those policies; and provide meaningful training on those policies and keep a record when staff training has taken place.

Yes the 2010 Act provides what is called a “reasonable steps defence” for employers who provide such policies and training, which provides an employer with a defence on liability for a claim. However, it does not deal with those workers who suffer in silence or who cannot afford to bring a claim against their employer.

The Employment Rights Act 1996 sets out a statutory requirement to provide minimum terms and conditions of employment. The 1996 Act or the 2010 Act could be amended to cover policies and training on discrimination. If primary legislation is not amended then what about introducing an Acas code of practice similar to the one we have on disciplinary and grievance procedures providing minimum requirements on good practice and where compensation can be increased if employers fail to follow the code.

What about introducing fines against employers who don’t have anti-discrimination policies and provide training? If we are to finally rid ourselves of discrimination in the workplace then changes need to take place where unacceptable behaviour is highlighted and employers are forced to act.