What is racism in the workplace?

 

In the news currently is the matter of a teacher that was suspended for posting pictures of children in her class, apparently segregated by race.

Another relevant case has just been decided by our Constitutional Court, where a man was dismissed for referring to a co-employee as a “swart man” – “Black man”.

How do you as an employer or employee regulate this in the workplace? Many refer to co-workers by race – is this racist and derogatory?  It is a real challenge and in this political climate a recipe for disaster.

Think of Adam Catzavelos who posted a “personal” video on the beach and what happened to him and his business. He was fired from a family business and the business has, to our knowledge, not recovered.  The ramifications are huge, especially with social media when things can go viral.

The case of Adam Catzavelos is very clear. His conduct was despicable.  But what of the teacher who posted the pictures – was her suspension valid?  The employee who was dismissed, was his dismissed fairly?

The Constitutional Court held that the CONTEXT of the words or action are what is important in determining whether conduct is racist or defamatory or derogatory.   Was the context intended to be or apparently racist?  Did it belittle the “victim” thereof?  Our history of segregation and apartheid is of great relevance in this.  Ordinary words or actions can be determined to be racist, based on the context and the heightened tensions around racism in South Africa.

The employee who referred to his co-employee as a “swart man” (black man) did so in anger – he allegedly burst into a meeting demanding that the black man’s vehicle be removed from his parking immediately or there would be consequences.

For employers, if such an incident occurs in your workplace, you need to carefully consider our current society tensions and test the context of the incident.

For employees and the general public, be aware of Government efforts to curb racism and hate speech and think carefully. Do not act in anger and measure your words.

If you are an employer – contact us to assist you to put the necessary policies and procedures in place for these situations. We can also assist in sensitising your staff to the actions which could be considered discriminatory or racist.

 

Contact : Charmaine Schwenn

Charmaine@schwenninc.co.za

031-003 0630 / 083 789 7638