Racist comments to an employee

Hi All,

An employee has just been to see their line manager in tears, really upset and very angry. I'm just looking for a bit of advice (ER is my weaker side of HR but I'm enjoying being able to build upon it!) 

On Friday when the London bridge terror incident occurred, employee A said to employee B who is Pakistani "how on earth do people of your faith think that this is acceptable?" to which the response was "they share my faith but not my opinions, values or mindset. I do not agree with what they do and do not wish to continue this conversation" 

Apparently, employee A (who is known for being aggressive and argumentative) kept going on and on about this incident, so employee B left the building and went home but still came back in tears today. 

Their line manager has spoken to employee B to get a statement but employee A is completely unaware he's said anything wrong. 

To my knowledge, this is the first time employee A has said anything offensive and I don't think it was witnessed by anyone else and employee B doesn't want to raise a grievance but would like it 'dealt' with.

I will get employee A's version of events and if needed, go down the verbal warning route and offer some guidelines of what is inappropriate to say in the workplace. Is there anything else I need to do? 

  • Why just a verbal warning?
    He had his chance to get stuff off his chest when she gave her excellent response
    He is either unbalanced or a bully
    She may not want to pursue it but you should.
  • You must take this matter very seriously, regardless of employee B's decision not to raise a grievance. In my view a formal investigation is appropriate.
  • Would it be raciest if some Buddhist said to a Christian in a workplace: "how on earth do people of your faith think that this is acceptable?", if they were referring to some murder, other illegal acts, etc., by a christian in the UK about, such matters or other acts which go against their own beliefs.

    It might not be the most tactful way of asking why or how, nor was it really acceptable to continue with the comments once the person replied as they did. But raciest?? He didn't exactly insult their race did he?

    Isn't the current context important?

  • In reply to David Perry:

    The alleged harassment may be linked to either race, or religion or belief.
    EHRA states that harassment occurs when someone makes you feel humiliated, offended or degraded. Based on the complaint, it certainly sounds like it meets this criteria.
    The purpose of the initial investigation would be to understand and document exactly what was said, the manner in which is was spoken, who heard it and how it made them feel. Following on from that you should consider whether a disciplinary process is appropriate.
  • After delving into this situation a little more, I feel it needs to be a first written warning. Employee A has tendencies to challenge people on their personal beliefs (they were overheard questioning someone on why they're a vegan last week) which makes people feel uncomfortable. Employee B has been with us for 10 years and is never anything but happy but has totally not been their normal self today.

    Apparently, employee A continued to challenge employee B in front of the office and wouldn't stop. The comments are linked directly to Employee B's religion which is totally unacceptable and has left them feeling humiliated and singled out.

    Our disciplinary policy is very vague, it's only my fourth week so haven't got chance to even look at it until now. I don't think Employee A's comments were directly racist but nonetheless still offensive.
  • In reply to Rachael:

    No they were not directly racist but they were about her religion which is also a protected characteristic.
  • In reply to Rachael:

    Unless you are chairing the disciplinary surely it is not up to you to 'pre-determine' any disciplinary sanction as in 'you feel it needs to be a first written warning'.

    Even if chairing the meeting any decision/action should not be pre-determined!

    If you are carrying out the formal investigation then your report should be fact based and in summary can advise that a disciplinary meeting be the next step only. What your report should not do is include your views on the outcome of any disciplinary including what sanction, if deemed necessary by the chair, decides to impose.
  • In reply to Rachael:

    Continuing it isn't acceptable though!!
  • In reply to Rachael:

    From the description, even if employee b doesn’t want to pursue it, given the nature of the comment and continued attempt to engage employee b in it by employee a despite b saying no, in my view it warrants formal investigation; if your disc. Procedure is vague then fall back on ensuring the steps set out in the acas code of practice for disc & grievance are followed. Appoint an investigation officer, you as HR provide procedural support, interview both, interview any witness if the conversation happened in public, then if investigation officer finds there’s a case to answer a hearing gets convened with a different person chairing and they hear the case and determine any sanction. The stated comments in the context you’ve given are potential harassment on grounds of religion or belief, and they had the effect of creating a hostile environment for employee b (they were upset, they had to go home etc). It’s not them bringing the complaint, it’s an organisational decision based on what has come to your attention. Hope this helps
  • First, if this employee has brought the matter to you and "wants it dealt with" then she has raised a grievance. She doesn't have to do anything else for it to be a grievance or for there to be a moral and legal obligation upon you, the employer, to deal with it.

    Investigate, report, recommend. *Especially* because it appears to involve some form of harassment. If you were to fail to act and the aggrieved employee resigned, it would be a clear-cut case of CUD with potential unlimited damages. And that's before you take into account that failing to act means enabling behaviour that is, at least, borderline racist and/or islamophobic and certainly not conducive to a cheerful and productive workplace.

    As the HR professional on the scene, though, it's not your job to determine the proper outcome. That must be the job of this person's line manager or the line manager above them (which, for a serious allegation of this nature, might be appropriate). Your job is to investigate the allegations (or, if you are a larger organization, to appoint an investigator and supervise the progress of the investigation) and to pass the investigation and the recommendations of the investigator (if it isn't you) to the deciding manager.

    It is then the deciding manager's job to decide whether or not to convene a formal hearing (I would certainly recommend it, just on the basis of what you've said so far) to decide on whether a sanction is necessary and, if so, what it should be. Your role is then to advise the Chair of this hearing as to the correct process and what options are available to him or her.
  • In reply to Isabel:

    Its up to the employer to decide in this case.

    If it went to court it would be up to the judge to decide whether that person had reasonable grounds to feeling like they did and/or indeed whether they were being too sensitive.

    I believe that where juries are involved in having to make decisions based on a subjective matter, judges sometimes direct juries to decide how the ordinary man/woman on the street would judge or interpret similar remarks. So saying you feel humiliated, offended or degraded doesn't automatically mean that, in this case it was a racist remark.

    Context counts for a lot.

    However, I will say that I think he could have asked in a more tactful way, and I certainly think going on about it was probably insensitive. But the context here is some convicted terrorist killing three people and trying to kill or injure other people - in this country. The employee was asking a question that many other people would and have asked at a time when many people were rightly upset and angry. Don't other people have a right to be be upset and express themselves?

    The EHRA also allows freedom of expression as I'm sure you know.

  • In reply to Robey:

    This is really helpful - thank you.
  • In reply to David Perry:

    I really have to disagree with you there David. i would be really saddened if many other people would ask. I would hope that if someone of a particular religion committed a crime, no-one would think just because other people had the same religion, they may somehow agree that the crime was acceptable.

    I would imagine that if you and a female colleague saw a news report about a man committing a particularly nasty rape and she then turned to you and asked 'how on earth do you men think that this is acceptable", you would quite rightly be upset. If she then continued to go on at you about it, which in effect is more or less accusing you holding the same views as the rapist, would you shrug it off that she had the right to be upset and express herself?
  • In reply to David Perry:

    You're right that context counts for a lot.
    IMHO the context here is that this comment was in the workplace to a fellow employee, referring to why 'people of [their] faith' consider that an act of terrorism was acceptable (ie the comment, if phrased as stated, infers that all people of a particular religion or belief either condone, or are somehow complicit in the act in question).

    Freedom of expression is not in question here - it is whether or not it is acceptable for one employee to make such a comment/ask such a question of another employee, in the workplace, with the heavy inference that it holds.

    This isn't about tact (there is no tactful way to have asked that question, and indeed no reason for them to have asked it to that particular individual at all).

    This is also not about someone's right to be upset (in this case, employee A) - them being upset does not entitle them to single out one colleague and expect them to explain or try to account for the actions of the perpetrator of the terrorist act.

    The Equality Act makes it clear that religion/belief are protected characteristics, and that harassment related to a protected characteristic occurs when when a person engages in unwanted conduct which is related to a relevant protected characteristic and which has the purpose or the effect of:
    - violating the worker’s dignity; or
    - creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that worker.

    I appreciate there will be different views on this - the above is mine.
  • In reply to David Perry:

    Hi David

    The questioner wasn't asking how Usman Khan could have done it but how people of your faith  think that this is acceptable. The "people of your faith" comment is lumping the employee who was picked on and all Muslims together as a group that thinks murder is acceptable. Stereotyping all Muslims in this way is discriminatory. However, for me, what shifts this behaviour into territory where the organisation must step in is that the questioner went on and on - that's the description in the OP - at someone until they actually walked out of work. This person was hectored and badgered because of their religion. While I found the question objectionable, if the questioner had just listened to the other employee's answer and then let it go, it wouldn't have been so bad. A swift informal reaction on the spot to put them straight might have been appropriate. But it didn't stop there. 

    The fact that this was originally described as racism is, for me, a red herring. The wrong label might have been attached to it but someone was picked on because of a protected characteristic. I do not think this was someone being over-sensitive in the face of a genuine human reaction.