What to do if you witness racial inequality at work

Karen Holden from A City Law Firm outlines the actions both employers and employees can take to stamp out racial discrimination at work.

Gender Mixed Team


As businesses become more aware of systemic racial inequality, many are reviewing their processes to see how they can assist in closing the divide of racial inequality. Ways of applying for jobs and promotion and grievance and disciplinary processes can all be reviewed to tackle discrimination and provide equal opportunities for people from all backgrounds.

Instances of racial discrimination, bullying and harassment in the workplace do still occur, however, and both employers and employees can assist in stamping out this behaviour.

Other employees:

If you see discrimination or bullying and harassment based on race aimed at one of your colleagues, how can you assist?  The bystander effect is a common reaction, seen in situations such as car accidents or a fight when there are a large number of witnesses. Many people may wait to see who is going to intervene rather than run forward to assist themselves. The latter is more likely in situations where there are few witnesses.

Often in the workplace the bystander effect happens because those people who could say something are worried that they will become the next person targeted or that their complaint will become the focus of attention. This can result in a culture where those engaging in misconduct become even more bold because they are aware that no one is going to challenge them. It becomes very important to call people out on the small stuff, so that it is clear to those displaying this behaviour that they will be held to account.

When it is not possible to call people out at the time for their behaviour, there may be another time and place where this is appropriate. For example, rather then making a comment during a meeting, you could have a quiet word to your manager after the meeting to say what you heard and why that was offensive. There is an onus on the organisation to make sure that employees are not retaliated against for speaking out.

What the law says:

It is against the law to treat someone differently or unfairly due to a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. The unfair treatment does not have to be aimed at you personally, but could be a policy or rule which affects you more than others without your protected characteristic. The protected characteristics are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership status, pregnancy or maternity, race, religion or belief and sex or sexual orientation.

You also cannot be treated unfairly because you have challenged discrimination before, i.e., you have complained about someone else’s unfair treatment through a complaint or grievance. This is called victimisation and the way it is dealt with should also be covered in policies and handbooks so that employees feel safe to speak out to keep a workplace fair.

What should employers be doing?

Employers need to be advocates of equal opportunity in the workplace. They have an implied duty to take reasonable steps to prevent discrimination, bullying and harassment of their employees.

There are numerous ways in which they can do this:

– Policies and handbooks: These need to set out clearly to all employees that discriminatory behaviour is not tolerated. This means that not only the employer will be following strict disciplinary policies, but new employees are made aware on reading these that employees who breach these policies and are found guilty are likely to be summarily dismissed for gross misconduct.
– Training on anti-discrimination, bullying and harassment: It is important that this training assists employees to identify what constitutes discrimination, bullying and harassment. Specific training should also assist managers with how to deal with complaints on an informal and formal level so that there is no accusation that complaints were not actioned.
– The ACAS Code of Conduct: Employers should be familiar with this document to assist in dealing fairly with complaints of racial discrimination. It will assist employers in showing that they treated a complaint fairly, even though it does not have legal force.

For equal opportunities, there are many actions that an employer can take, including setting up a race equality strategy and monitoring will assist in confirming whether goals set out in the strategy are being met. It may be that in the future we will see requirements for ethnicity pay gap reporting, given some large businesses are required to do this already when it comes to gender pay gap reporting.

*Karen Holden is founder of A City Law Firm. Having been admitted to the roll in 2005. Karen was invited and given freedom of the City in 2019 for her work in Equality as such is part of the Guild of Freeman.

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