Banter is a natural part of any workplace but what happens when a line is crossed into abusive, racist, sexist or homophobic remarks? Chris Evans discusses where to draw the line
An EU report released in May highlighted that a quarter of gay people surveyed across Europe have been subject to attacks or violent threats in the past five years. This is a worrying statistic, but is it reflective of the workplace too? Many would argue no, but, as with all forms of abuse, it is extremely subjective, and the levels can vary considerably. What may seem innocuous to one person, can be perceived as hugely offensive by another.
“Last year my team had to go on a training day about acceptable language at work because the word ‘gay’ was being branded about too freely between heterosexuals as a derogatory term,” says James Gordon, a senior IT manager at John Lewis. “The course proved to be an eye opener for some and seems to have done the trick.”
Equally, racist, sexist and other discriminatory comments between work colleagues may seem ‘harmless’ to some, often dressed in banter or as a joke, but can be construed as deeply offensive and ‘harmful’ by others.
“I had to deal with one guy who was new to the UK and terribly sensitive, due to personal issues and experiences in his home country, all unbeknown to the workplace,” explains Kim Chalk, HR managing consultant at Wells & Co Consulting. “He was so traumatised by a colleague’s racist remark that he stopped coming to work, but didn’t tell anyone why because he didn’t know who to turn to. In the end it went through the disciplinary channels, but instead of him being reprimanded he was given support, and the perpetrator was given a talking too, although he was also traumatised, because he hadn’t realised the extent of damage caused by his comment, and wasn’t given the chance to apologise.”
Nip it in the bud
This is an extreme example of how far out of hand comments can get, but situations can escalate quickly if not dealt with rapidly. The ideal scenario is that the victim of a comment, or a witness, confronts the perpetrator straight away, so they know they’ve stepped out of line, and hopefully won’t re-offend.
But if they are not comfortable confronting the abuser then the next best thing is to have an informal discussion with the line manager or another senior person to explain the situation. “If someone has been repeatedly abusive, or behaving inappropriately, I always recommend victims keep a log to present as evidence,” says Caroline Harper from law firm Your Employment Matters.
It is in repeat offence cases, or if a comment is considered extremely inappropriate, that disciplinary procedures are often taken by a company. It begins with a verbal warning, but can proceed to written warnings, and then ultimately dismissal.
For these disciplinary procedures, the human resources team are brought in to conduct thorough investigations of the incident, undertaking interviews with those involved, including witnesses, gathering evidence and the severity of the situation, and then deciding on the best course of action.
Independent members of the same company can also be brought in to provide impartial advice based on the interviews and evidence. “I was asked to oversee a case recently in which a woman claimed she was being unfairly harassed by her male boss, saying he made several discriminatory remarks against her,” says Tony Phillips, a senior manager at BskyB. “But when asked to give proof or examples, she couldn’t, and in fact colleagues argued it was she who was being the nuisance and behaving inappropriately.”
There is always more than one side to a story. In recent times, there has been great debate about whether immigrants coming to this country are taking ‘our’ jobs. This negative slant can have a diverse effect on a working environment. “I’ve seen British colleagues make openly abusive comments towards Eastern European colleagues, telling them to ‘go home’ and the like. As well as bosses deliberately paying them less, and not giving them promotions,” says one employee at a major global oil company.
Furthermore, with the rise of new technology, especially social media, the net has widened ways of spreading abusive comments. “With Facebook and Twitter you have to prove that the messages are an extension of the workplace,” says Caroline Harper. “But companies should have an internet and social media usage policy so that employees don’t bring the company’s name into disrepute.”
All that said, the amount of openly racist, sexist and homophobic remarks has considerably decreased over the decades, and the way they’re dealt with is certainly a lot better. “I remember about 20 years ago working as a sales person for a photocopying company in a male dominated environment, and comments about my breasts, clothes and sex life were considered perfectly acceptable,” says Kim. “One man then took it a step further and groped me. When I complained to the manager, he said I wasn’t a team player and fired me. That, I am happy to say, is very unlikely to happen nowadays.”
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