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Racism on the Shop Floor - Employers Can Expect to Carry the Can

Some shop floors are rough and ready places where foul language abounds, but if a worker makes a racist or other discriminatory comment it is likely to be the employer who ends up carrying the legal can. An Employment Tribunal (ET) ruling underlined the necessity of keeping a lid on things and nipping such conduct in the bud (Mendez v Plasflow Ltd).

The case concerned a black machine operator who was furious that his line manager had reported him for alleged unsafe use of machinery. A fierce altercation developed between them on the shop floor, during which he alleged that the manager subjected him to an obscene racial slur. Following a disciplinary process, he was dismissed on grounds of gross misconduct.

After he launched proceedings, the ET found that, when he complained about the slur, the factory's general manager took a dismissive approach in describing the matter as irrelevant. That amounted to less favourable treatment because of his race. Turning a blind eye to what, if proven, would obviously have been a racist comment was in itself an act of unlawful race discrimination.

In also upholding the man's racial harassment complaint, the ET found that his line manager had in fact made the racist comment, albeit in the heat of the moment. Facebook material emanating from the manager's account suggested that he held, or at least sympathised with, some extreme views on race. The material, and the answers he gave when asked about it, indicated that he was more likely than most to refer to a black person in derogatory terms.

The man's dismissal was unfair in that his complaint about the racial slur had been investigated only in a half-hearted and superficial manner. There was also a failure to properly address his complaint that his treatment was inconsistent in that his line manager had not been subjected to any disciplinary process.

The ET rejected the man's other complaints of race discrimination together with his claim that his dismissal was racially motivated. Given his role in the altercation – he had thrown a cup at the wall and violence might have ensued had the men not been separated – the ET found that he was 30 per cent responsible for his dismissal. The amount of compensation payable to him by his former employer in respect of the upheld complaints would be assessed at a further hearing, if not agreed.

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