I think I am suffering race discrimination at work. What can I do?

Racist behaviour towards you, conducted by anybody at your place of work, is against the law. 

Racial discrimination can take many different forms. It might be direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, racial harassment, or victimisation

Racist behaviour might include: 

  • being shouted at; 

  • being called racist names; 

  • racial 'jokes' and ‘banter’, including offensive tweets, text messages, social media entries and screen savers; 

  • being denied certain benefits; 

  • being overlooked for promotion and/or training; or 

  • being bullied. 

All good employers will have an equal opportunities policy in place, as well as a policy banning bullying and harassment. Your employer should take a zero tolerance approach to all forms of racial discrimination and harassment at work. Get hold of a copy of the relevant policies. 

Your employer needs to take an equally firm 'zero tolerance' approach to all abuse by third parties, such as customers, suppliers, patients or clients. 

As a practical matter, make sure you make a note of the behaviour you found offensive, when it took place and by whom. Keep a copy of any offensive texts, tweets or Facebook posts. Keep a diary note of the efforts you make to get the behaviour to stop and what effect this has. 

If you are a member of a trade union, talk to your union representative. If what you have experienced is not an isolated incident, it may be that your organisation has a wider problem with its 'culture', for example casual racist jokes and remarks passed off as "banter". If so, this must be tackled urgently, and needs to be addressed with the utmost seriousness by your employer. Where a union is recognised, your union can play an important role here. 

Occasionally, the person making the remarks may not appreciate how upsetting you find them or realise how they sound and the impact of their behaviour on others. There can sometimes be times when explaining quietly how the behaviour is making you feel is enough to put a stop to it. Only you will know whether an approach of this kind is something with which you feel comfortable. 

If this kind of approach is not successful – or if you don’t feel comfortable speaking to the person concerned – you should raise it with a manager – someone more senior than the culprits. Explain what is happening and ask your employer to make it stop. Keep a record of your complaint. 

Your employer should take your complaint very seriously and investigate it promptly and carefully, including interviewing the perpetrators and any witnesses. After a disciplinary hearing, if race discrimination is found, those who are guilty should be given a disciplinary punishment which, depending on the severity, could include, for example, a Formal Warning or even summary dismissal

Your employer may require the perpetrators to make a formal apology to you and to attend diversity training, and may hold 'refresher' diversity training for all staff. 

In 2020, the Equality and Human Rights Commission released new guidance on harassment – including racial harassment - which sets out standards that employers are expected to meet. This is a useful resource to look at if you want to understand the standards your employer should be meeting and persuade them to take action. 

In particular, the new guidance suggests that employers should:  

  • develop policies in consultation with any recognised trade union and train staff to implement those policies; 

  • maintain centralised records in enough detail to enable trends to be analysed; 

  • conduct staff surveys; 

  • use “lessons learned” sessions once complaints have been resolved; 

  • listen to feedback from employees, for example through exit interviews; 

  • proactively watch for the warning signs of workplace harassment and bullying, beyond formal and informal complaints, such as increased sickness absence, changes in behaviour, comments in exit interviews, a dip in performance or avoidance of a certain colleague. 

The guidance recommends ways to enable workers to raise issues and sets out what employers should do if workers ask for no action to be taken. If you're considering a claim of racial discrimination to an employment tribunal, you should normally use the grievance procedure first – although you must bring your claim within the tribunal time limit, even if the grievance process has not yet been exhausted. Tribunal time limits are very short – just three months. 

Before bringing a tribunal claim, you must submit an Early Conciliation Notification Form to Acas. It is not possible to make a claim in the employment tribunal until you have done this. There is more information about Acas early conciliation here. Acas early conciliation is free. 

Discrimination law is complex, so make sure you seek sound advice at an early stage before bringing an employment tribunal claim. If you are in a union, you can speak to your representative for advice. If you are not a union member, you might want to talk to a solicitor (there might be a charge for this), your local Citizens Advice or Law Centre, or Acas (tel: 0300 123 1100). 

For more information on Acas early conciliation and bringing a tribunal claim see our section on Enforcing your Rights

Sometimes a firm collective, workplace-level approach is what is needed. The TUC has released a short guide with pointers on where you can go for further support if you experience racism where you work: Combatting racist abuse in the workplace: a TUC guide to protecting migrant and Black and Minority Ethnic workers from violence, harassment and abuse (PDF).  

Note: This content is provided as general background information and should not be taken as legal advice or financial advice for your particular situation. Make sure to get individual advice on your case from your union, a source on our free help page or an independent financial advisor before taking any action.

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