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Handling Accusations of Discrimination in the Workplace

June 25 2015 - Discrimination is a complex subject that encompasses a wide variety of different offences. Within any company, every employee has the right to be treated equally, and employers should have all necessary procedures and policies in place to be able to deal with discrimination or harassment claims effectively and fairly.

Here are some important points for employers to consider if ever faced with a discrimination or harassment case within their organisation.

Face up to the facts

It can be extremely difficult for employers to face the fact that discrimination may be happening within their organisation, not to mention stressful for all manner of reasons: accusations of discrimination can have serious consequences, not only for the individuals involved, but, both financially and culturally for a business as a whole.

Discrimination is defined as 'the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of a "protected characteristic"'. These include an employee’s age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation. The difficulty comes in the inherent subjectivity of 'unjust or prejudicial treatment'.

It is imperative that employers do all they can to avoid unnecessary problems from the outset, by investigating all allegations of discrimination, no matter how minor or illegitimate they may be considered to be. By failing to follow up claims properly, dismissing them entirely, or retaliating by making rash decisions (threats of demotion, contract termination etc), employers run the risk of facing legal action of their own.

Once an allegation of discrimination has been raised within the organisation, wheels should be put into motion immediately to resolve the issue, ensuring that the procedures detailed in the staff handbook, or other documented policies, are adhered to at all times.

False claims and defamation

False accusations of discrimination or harassment within the workplace can have severe implications; they raise many problems for employees and employers alike, and can be a huge drain on time and resources. However, until proven to be false, all claims should be treated with equal attention and fairness.

Defamation, also sometimes referred to as traducement or vilification, is the communication of a false statement that is intended to harm the reputation of others.

It is therefore important to establish whether the claim is legitimate, as well as whether it is a personal attack on an individual or the business as whole, as both scenarios will likely result in very different outcomes. The Defamation Act 2013 offers further guidance on this subject.

If a case is deemed to be false, it is best to consult an HR professional to help work towards a resolution. However, with certain false claims, most notably false allegations of sexual harassment, the complainant could face much more serious consequences, and therefore it is advisable to seek legal advice from an experienced employment law expert in such instances.

Grievance procedure

When faced with a concern, problem or complaint at work, employees may wish to take it up with their employer or line manager. This is called raising a grievance.

For the purpose of this article, a grievance may be raised by an employee if they feel they have been discriminated against in the workplace.

By law all employers should have a grievance procedure and share it in writing with all employees; this may be part of the employee handbook, for example. A grievance policy will include details of who to contact in event of a grievance, and how best to contact them, as well as details about the grievance procedure itself.

The aim of a grievance procedure is to encourage settlement of disputes without going to a tribunal. If an employee or employer fails to comply with the ACAS code on grievances, then compensation may be adjusted downward or upward, depending on the outcome.

More information about grievance can be found in the ACAS Code of Practice.

Summary

Discrimination is an extremely challenging area of employment law, not least because of the subjective nature of what constitutes discriminatory behaviour, and to what extent the rules and obligations under the Equality Act 2010 have been engaged.

When it comes to workplace discrimination, prevention is better than cure: employers should do all they can to implement a discrimination free culture, through communicating clear policies, implementing structured and consistent procedures, and by keeping staff at all levels trained on the areas surrounding discrimination.

By keeping abreast of changes in employment law, and by familiarising themselves with and regularly revisting their own policies, employers will find themselves much better equipped to deal with a discrimination claim, should one arise.

Article contributed by Fisher Jones Greenwood Solicitors, an award-winning law firm based throughout Essex and in Central London. Fisher Jones Greenwood recently commissioned a survey in order to gauge the prevalence of discrimination within today’s workplace, the results of which can be seen here.



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