Racial discrimination in the workplace

Identifying and eradicating racial discrimination at work is essential to run a diverse organisation

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Friday, Dec 22, 2023

Racial discrimination at work is specifically prohibited under the Employment Equality Acts 1998 to 2015. Race is one of the nine protected grounds laid out under employment equality legislation.

While compliance with the law is vital, multiple studies have shown that a business is more likely to perform better financially if its workforce is more diverse. A 2005 study by Ely & Thomas found increased productivity in diverse workforces where employees acknowledge their differences and learn from their contrasting backgrounds.  

What is racial discrimination?

Under Irish employment equality law, racial discrimination occurs where one person is treated less favourably than another on the ground that they are of different race, colour, nationality or ethnic or national origins.

How racial discrimination can manifest in the workplace

Direct racial discrimination is easy to identify and occurs when one employee receives less favourable treatment than other colleagues because they are of a different race, skin colour, nationality or ethnic or national origins. Discrimination can arise as a once-off occurrence or consist of a number of events that develop over time. If the workplace becomes persistently hostile, offensive or degrading to employees of a certain race, those employees have suffered a form of discrimination known as harassment on the ground of race which is also specifically prohibited under employment equality legislation.

Workplace racial discrimination can manifest itself in policies or procedures which put employees of a certain background at a disadvantage. For example, requiring employees to speak English as their first language puts foreign nationals at a disadvantage. This requirement would constitute indirect discrimination. Employers sometimes implement indirectly discriminatory policies without intending to do so.

If an incident of racial discrimination is reported and remains unresolved the employee who made the complaint may receive less favourable treatment or penalisation for blowing the whistle. This constitutes victimisation which is also prohibited under employment equality legislation.   

Warning signs

Victims of racial discrimination will not always feel confident enough to complain about the treatment they have received. An employee in a junior role who may not have clear cut evidence to ‘prove’ the allegation is unlikely to come forward. It is important therefore that staff at all levels are trained in how to recognise the signs of racial discrimination.

Warning signs which perpetrators of racial discrimination exhibit can include:

  • derogatory language and name calling
  • ignoring certain employees when it comes to promotion, rewards or recruitment
  • attributing setbacks to problems caused by employees of one race or nationality.

Prevent racial discrimination in the workplace

Providing your employees with training which highlights the benefits of racial and cultural diversity is a positive start.

If an organisation has experienced problems with racial discrimination the issues tend to be deeply ingrained. To properly tackle the problem, the organisation will need to change the culture which has been allowed to develop.

The following pointers will help ensure your organisation reaps the benefits of employing a racially diverse workforce:

  • employ recruitment practices that treat applicants of all races and national or ethnic backgrounds equally
  • train line managers to be culturally aware and to recognise and deal with any race discrimination issues
  • provide your company policies and procedures in your employees’ first language to ensure they are properly understood and treated fairly

Can racial discrimination ever be justified?

There are certain situations which may be exempt from the employment equality legislation. For instance, a theatre company casting for a role played by an actor of a specific ethnic origin will not be breaking the law by auditioning actors of one ethnicity only.

In general, any discriminatory requirements must be objectively justified and constitute a proportionate measure to achieve a legitimate business aim of the company.

Handling a race discrimination claim  

If an employee makes a complaint that they have been subjected to racial discrimination – either by an organisational policy or by a colleague – the immediate first step is to attempt to resolve the issue internally. Instigate your formal grievance and disciplinary procedures to investigate, record and ideally determine the matter.   

If no resolution can be found it is possible that the aggrieved employee will lodge a claim with the Workplace Relations Commission. This eventuality should be avoided if at all possible as your organisation will devote too much time and money to a potentially drawn-out legal process which also brings a likelihood of unwanted negative publicity with it.

In extreme cases which include allegations of violent or threatening behaviour the Gardaí may be called to investigate.

Line managers should be the first point of contact

for complaints involving racial discrimination. Management need to receive training to prepare them to handle such complaints in an appropriate and sensitive manner. Managers should be able to recognise the nature of the complaint and apply the appropriate response whether that is an informal conversation or initiating formal grievance procedures.

Larger organisations may establish diversity networks to ensure employees and management feel adequately supported.

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