What is racial discrimination in the workplace?

Moira Grassick - Chief Operating Officer

March 22 2022

First published: March 22nd, 2022

The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination takes place each year in March.

And while employment law has made significant progress, racial discrimination and racism in the workplace still pose challenges for many employers.

So, as an employer, what can you do to counteract workplace racism and discrimination?

How positive action can make a difference in the workplace

The Black Lives Matter protests in cities around the world last summer brought new attention to the racism and discrimination that many people worldwide face daily. Racism needs to be addressed at a societal level, as well as in the workplace.

Increasing awareness of racial discrimination leads to action, and that makes a positive difference in the workplace. As with all changes, the most significant results come from those at the top. So, be sure to support employees from all backgrounds and ethnic minorities. Create a culture of trust that embraces all employees. 

Discrimination in the workplace

Two pieces of legislation prohibit discrimination and harassment based on race in Ireland.

The first is the Employment Equality Act 1998 - 2015 (the EE Acts), which prohibits discrimination in the workplace. In Irish law, the term "ground of race" includes colour, nationality, or ethnic or national origin.

Discrimination in the provision of goods or services is prohibited by the Equal Status Acts 2000-2018 (the ES Acts). The EE Acts aim to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities when it comes to skills, training, work, and promotion. There are several different kinds of discrimination in the workplace recognised as illegal by the EE Acts, including:

  • Direct discrimination: When someone is intentionally treated worse than others due to who they are.
  • Indirect discrimination: When someone is treated worse than others because there are requirements that they might find harder to fulfil than other people.
  • Discrimination by association: When someone is treated differently than other people because of who they know or are close to.
  • Discrimination by imputation: When someone is treated worse than other people because they are unfairly labelled as belonging to one of the nine discrimination grounds.

The nine discrimination grounds mentioned above are:

  • Gender
  • Civil status
  • Family status
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religion
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Race
  • Membership of the Traveller community

Discrimination on the ‘race ground’ occurs where there is less favourable treatment of one person compared to another person because they are of different race, colour, nationality or ethnic or national origins.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) has stated that the government needs to prioritise eradicating racism and racial discrimination in Ireland with greater urgency and efficiency. According to the IHREC, there have been "progressive developments" in the past three years, including the establishment of an Anti-Racism Committee and the development of legislative proposals to address racism and hate crimes in Ireland.

Recommendations and employer responsibilities

As part of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the commission has published its recommendations on the General Scheme of the Hate Crime Bill.

These recommendations call for a more uniform and clear definition of terms such as:

  • Hatred
  • Harm
  • Unlawful discrimination
  • Hostility
  • Incitement relating to hate crime

According to the IHREC, definitions of "harmful online content" need to be clear and sufficiently precise in proposed Online Safety laws. This includes rules around online hate speech and content inciting violence against protected groups.

In terms of the workplace, you must ensure that all employees have a safe working environment, so you must take reasonable steps to prevent discrimination and harassment. In an employment contract, a person is entitled to be paid at the same rate as a person of another race doing similar work for the same or an associated employer at the time or at a later date. A period of three years precedes and follows the relevant time.

Racial discrimination cases before the Workplace Relations Commission

Despite a high level of awareness in Ireland of racism, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) still receives hundreds of complaints about racial discrimination and harassment each year.

To ensure that you stay on the right side of the EE Acts and avoid a complaint to the WRC, you must be able to prove that you’ve taken steps to prevent harassment at work. For this reason, it’s imperative that a policy on bullying and harassment, as well as a complaints procedure, is in place. This will ensure that discrimination and harassment complaints are handled appropriately.

Effective bullying and harassment policies can play a pivotal role in eliminating racial discrimination at work, resulting in a happy, inclusive, and safe workplace for everyone.

Questions about racial discrimination in the workplace?

If you have questions about discrimination in the workplace or want advice on how to deal with racism in the workplace, we can help. To speak with one of our HR consultants today, call 0818 923 923.

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