Racial Discrimination at Work

  • Discrimination
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Peninsula Group, HR and Health & Safety Experts

(Last updated )

In the modern business world, companies are made up of employees from all racial backgrounds. So, as an employer, it's your job to make sure they're never treated unfairly due to their race.

Unlawful discrimination is against the law in the UK. Allowing it in your business can lead to claims being raised against you to an employment tribunal, with potentially heavy compensation to pay.

In this guide, we'll discuss what race discrimination at work is, its different forms, and how you can create an inclusive workplace.

What is racial discrimination?

Racial discrimination is when a person or a group of people are treated unfairly and differently due to their race.

No one should experience discrimination and everyone deserves race equality in all walks of life. So as an employer, it's important you understand what race discrimination at work is.

What is racial discrimination at work?

Racial discrimination at work is when an employer treats an employee or group of employees unfairly and differently due to their race.

To successfully avoid discrimination of all forms, it's important you understand the rights of your employees.

What is race?

Race is when someone is part of a group of people who are identified by the following:

  • Colour: This refers to the colour of their skin.
  • Ethnic origin: This refers to the ethnic group that someone is part of, which has their own set of cultural traditions and history that makes it unique from others. Sometimes these are an oppressed group, such as Sikhs or Irish Travellers.
  • National origin: This refers to where someone was born, such as Wales or Scotland.
  • Nationality: This refers to the place in which the person is a citizen and what it says on their passport.

It's important to understand that someone's racial group can be made up of two or more distinct racial groups. For example a mixture of colour and nationality, such as Black and British.

How are employees protected against race discrimination at work?

In the UK, there are two Acts that protect employees from unlawful racial discrimination at work. As an employer, you have a legal duty to protect your employees against discrimination. This includes job applicants as well as current employees.

The Equality Act 2010 states that it is unlawful for employees to be treated unfairly due to one of the nine protected characteristics. These are:

Different types of racial discrimination in the workplace

Racist behaviour can take many different forms, but they all have the same negative impact on the victims. So as an employer, it's important you understand each of them.

Let's discuss them in more detail:

Direct discrimination

Direct racial discrimination is when an employee is treated unfairly because of their race or their perceived race.

This form of discrimination can be a one-off, or behaviour that continues to take place over a longer period of time.

Indirect discrimination

Indirect racial discrimination is where a policy or practice that applies to all your staff puts an employee of a particular race, ethnic or national group at a disadvantage.

If you're looking to introduce new policies or change current ones, then you must be aware of the potential impact this could have. You may not intend to discriminate against anyone, but it may be the case if you aren't careful.


Racial harassment is a form of discrimination when an employee receives unwanted conduct surrounding their race. This can range from racial abuse, comments that create an offensive working environment.

This type of discrimination can make someone feel intimidated, humiliated and degraded.


Victimisation is when an employee is treated unfairly following a complaint of indirect or direct discrimination, harassment or any other form of racial discrimination.

This type of behaviour is sometimes aimed at an employee who is simply supporting the claim that's been made.

Associative discrimination

Associative racial discrimination is when an employee is treated differently due to a friend or a family member  being a particular race, ethnicity or national origin.

Whatever the background of an employees' friend or family member is, isn't any of your business. By treating them differently - you may be guilty of unlawful discrimination.

Perceptive discrimination

Perceptive discrimination is when an employee is treated unfairly because the employer believes they are of a certain race.

This form of discrimination is against employment law and should be avoided at all costs.

Examples of racial discrimination at work

To fully manage unlawful discrimination at work, you must familiarise yourself with common examples.

Being aware of how you could be racially discriminating against an employee can help go a long way in creating an inclusive and diverse company.

So, let's discuss some examples:

Direct racial discrimination

There are numerous ways an employee can face direct discrimination due to their race or ethnic origin. Including the following:

  • Refusing to hire a job applicant because of the colour of their skin.
  • Paying an employee less because they’re from Poland.
  • Not offering an employee a training opportunity because they're Irish.

The above examples may seem extreme to most employers, but unfortunately they take place in many businesses.

Indirect race discrimination

As well as direct discrimination, there are also numerous ways in which you could indirectly racially discriminate against an employee or group of employees. Such as:

  • The employer states employees must work every Saturday. This may put Jewish employees at a disadvantage as they may be observing the Sabbath.

Before creating and implementing new policies, make sure you speak with all your employees to ensure you aren't discriminating against anyone.

Racial associative discrimination

There are many examples of racial associative discrimination - where the employer forms a wrong opinion based on an employee's family or friend

Such as:

  • Not hiring an applicant because they're friends with someone of a particular race.
  • Treating an employee differently after finding out their partner is part of a certain ethnic group.

As an employer, you should never treat any of your employee's unfairly because they're associated with someone from a certain race.

How to spot signs of discrimination against a particular racial group

As an employer, it's vital you know how to spot when racial discrimination occurs in your company. Doing so can go a long way in reducing it happening to your employees.

The following are acts of discrimination that you need to look out for:

  • Derogatory language being used towards someone of a certain nationality.
  • Problems being blamed on an employee of a certain race without proper grounds.
  • A failure to promote or reward employees of certain racial groups.

Can you be taken to an employment tribunal over racial discrimination at work?

Yes, if an employee feels they're the victim of race discrimination at work they can raise claims against you to an employment tribunal.

It's important you try and resolve the issues without having to go down the tribunal route.

If an employee resigns due to ongoing discrimination they're experiencing, they may raise a claim of constructive dismissal.

Is racial discrimination ever allowed?

Yes, there are some instances when discrimination against certain racial groups is allowed under UK law. Discrimination is only justified if you can prove that it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim (this applies to indirect discrimination).

An example of this is if it's unsafe for your employees to wear religious necklaces for health & safety reasons.

It's important to remember that if you need to bring in a policy like this in your business, then you should communicate with your employees. This will help them to understand the reasons behind your decision.

How to prevent race discrimination in your company

As an employer, you have a responsibility to prevent racial discrimination in your business. And, there are many things that you can do to ensure you're doing so.

Let's discuss how you can start tackling racism in your company:

Create clear and concise equality and inclusivity policies

One way to avoid discrimination in your company is to create policies that promote equality and ban bullying or harassment. This should be one of your basics.

These policies should make it clear to your employees that you take a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination of all forms. As well as creating a racially diverse workforce.

Create clear disciplinary procedures

It's important that you create a clear disciplinary procedure to deal with any incidents of discrimination. This'll increase your employees' confidence in you.

Sometimes incidences of discrimination won't be solved with an informal conversation and you may need to open disciplinary procedures.

Your procedure should include who to report discrimination to, and how you’ll deal with it. It's important you tackle any instances of discrimination with the utmost importance.

Review your recruitment policies

Review your current policies on recruitment to ensure you're hiring people from different racial backgrounds and groups. It's good practice to do all you can to create a workforce from a diverse range of races and nationalities.

It's advisable to stay clear of any references to a particular race or nationality when advertising a vacancy in your company. This should include where you're looking to boost the number of ethnic minority groups that are under-represented in your business.

Ensure decision-making panels are ethnically diverse

Another way to combat racial discrimination is to ensure employees of different races are included in decision-making panels. This'll help new ideas bounce around and solutions can be found.

This'll help employees of different races get their point of view across and increase their confidence in your ability in making the correct decision.

Train management and senior staff

Another way to avoid racial discrimination in your company is to ensure all your management and senior staff receive diversity training.

Training will help your senior members of staff become aware of how racist abuse or discrimination can make someone feel.

Also included in the training should be ways to deal with discrimination if it arises.

Foster an inclusive culture

Creating an inclusive culture is a great way of preventing discrimination in your company. Doing so will not only help employees feel included, but also make them feel comfortable in reporting any discriminatory behaviour they face or witness.

Failure to create an inclusive culture can lead to an offensive environment being created, allowing for discrimination.

Get expert advice from Peninsula on avoiding racial discrimination

As a business owner, your staff will come from different racial backgrounds - but it's your job to make them feel part of the team and not treat them unfairly. This can take many forms so it’s vital you manage it correctly.

Discrimination is against the law in the UK, if you allow it in your business - you could be taken to an employment tribunal.

Peninsula offers you expert 24/7 HR advice and support, helping you create an inclusive and diverse workforce. Want to find out more? Contact us on 0800 028 2420 and book a free consultation with an HR consultant today.

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