The recent case of Theresa Georges v Pobl Group Ltd, illustrates how employers’ good intentions can go horribly wrong if not managed appropriately. In this case, the manner in which the in-house trainer delivered equality and diversity training resulted in the employee being harassed on grounds of race.
The facts of the case are as follows; the claimant being relatively new in post attended induction training on equality and diversity. As part of the course, the in-house trainer looked at ‘what are discriminatory words?’ highlighting that people find different words offensive and just because someone doesn’t find something offensive doesn’t mean that no-one else will.
The trainer conducted an exercise, writing the words ‘n***’ and ‘p***’ (in full form) on a flipchart and then asked the delegates to shout out the most derogatory and offensive words they could think of. There were 16 delegates in the room. The trainer went around the room and people shouted out words, which were written on the flipchart. The ‘n’ word was shouted out three times. The claimant was the only black person in the room.
The claimant was shocked and upset and did not return to work after the training. Having exhausted the internal procedures she pursued a claim of racial harassment in the employment tribunal.
During the hearing the respondent argued that the training was designed to deal with delegates’ perceptions of discriminatory words and that it was not reasonable for the claimant to have been offended in circumstances where the purpose of using the words was to highlight that they ought not to be used. The Respondent argued that it had found it necessary to deliver this training to prevent discrimination.
The employment tribunal concluded that the use of the full ‘n’ word by the trainer and by the three others in the induction training had the effect of creating a degrading and offensive environment for the claimant and of violating her dignity. The tribunal found that it was reasonable for the claimant to have been offended by the conduct.
Whilst the tribunal took on board the respondent’s stated purpose and found that the underlying purpose of the training was entirely appropriate; it concluded that the chosen method of delivery was a risky strategy. The trainer’s approach of encouraging delegates to say deeply offensive words was a crude and unnecessary way of delivering the training. The tribunal upheld the claimant’s claim that she had been subjected to racial harassment.
It remains important for employers to deliver regular training on equality and diversity. In fact doing so will often assist employers in demonstrating that they have taken ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent discrimination occurring in the workplace (such being the statutory defence). However, this case highlights the risks involved in getting the training wrong. As lawyers and experienced trainers we have designed various training programmes that help organisation shape fair, diverse and productive cultures whilst managing the legal and practical risks.
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