Racism and the Equality Act: everyone is responsible

Our special project consultant, Sandy Sohal, takes a look at the Equality Act and how everyone in your organisation should take action to build an anti-racist culture. This blog contains extracts from our anti-racism toolkit, 'Building anti-racist cultures: a toolkit for your workplace'.

In an anti-racist organisation, everyone is responsible for upholding the culture through their words and actions. But what does the law say, and who should be doing what?   

The Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act 2010 applies to Great Britain and makes discrimination on the grounds of nine protected characteristics (including race) illegal. In this context, race includes ethnicity, colour, ethnic or national origin, and nationality. It applies to workplaces, public services, organisations that provide goods and services, clubs and associations, transport, and public bodies.

Discrimination could be the result of an isolated incident or a rule or policy based on race. A discriminatory action does not have to be intentional to break the law.

Liability of individuals and organisations

An organisation will usually be held liable for the actions of its employees (and its contractors etc). Individuals who commit discriminatory acts can also be named as respondents together with the employer. All respondents, including individuals, can be found liable for financial compensation.

Employers can avoid legal responsibility for the discriminatory actions of their employees if they can show that they took all reasonable steps to avoid the actions. But a 2021 case [Allay (UK) Ltd v Gehlen] showed that this is not an easy defence to mount. Allay (UK) Ltd had not done enough to prevent racial discrimination or to develop an inclusive culture, to avoid responsibility for the actions of its employee.

The roles of you and your colleagues in an anti-racist organisation

In addition to your responsibility to not discriminate against any colleague based on race, there are specific actions and responsibilities that may fall to different teams and individuals within your organisation. Some of these are explained below. Bear in mind that responsibilities may vary according to the context of your organisation.

Board

You set the vision and strategy with the CEO and executive team, and hold them to account. Ensure you have a meeting during which progress on anti-racism is discussed. Demand to know what is going on in the organisation – numbers of race-related grievances, disciplinaries etc. Plus what action is being taken to drive a fully equitable culture. Think about how you can have oversight of the organisation’s progress on anti-racism – this could be through reporting, setting up a dedicated committee, attending staff network or resource group meetings and so on.

CEO

You are ultimately responsible for your organisational culture. You own anti-racism, and you set the tone and the pace. As with other areas, you need to be willing to hold yourself and your direct reports to the highest standards when it comes to anti-racism, inclusion, and equity. Lead through role-modelling the values, policies, and processes you expect from the rest of your organisation. Hold your teams to account on inclusion, and ensure their performance is also judged on anti-racism and inclusion. Be clear about your agenda on inclusion, and ensure your direct reports are in no doubt about what you expect of them.

Executive Team/C-Suite

You must also set the vision, strategy, and action plan for anti-racism with the Board and CEO, and drive it. Translate them for, and apply them to, your own functional strategy. Be clear on behavioural expectations for all colleagues, and what inclusion and anti-racism look like in everyday activities. As with any leadership role, you must actively role-model anti-racism.

Senior Leaders

Talk. And walk the talk. Build inclusive teams, be clear what you stand for, and be honest and transparent about what is happening (or not happening). Be accountable and hold each other and your teams to account on inclusion.

Individual employees

This means everyone at every level. You should behave inclusively, you should call out injustice and racism, and you should behave as effective allies.

Network groups

Your terms of reference should be agreed with your organisation because there are many ways of running a network or group. Is yours a group for providing support or will it be involved in setting policy or the agenda on racial equity? Or is it a forum for views on internal and external comms etc. Either way, your role is to challenge inequity.

Managers and team leaders

Build inclusive team cultures with clear behavioural expectations and manage inclusively. Talk about race with your teams, celebrate inclusivity, and call out behaviours that don’t meet your expectations. Deal with overt and covert issues connected to racism. Question decisions and other actions that negatively impact your black and brown team members.

HR team

Make your policies inclusive and equitable, and make sure they’re followed by everybody. Take allegations seriously, make the consequences clear, and make sure the consequences follow when needed. Be clear on behavioural expectations  – on anti-racist and allyship behaviours.

Inclusion and Diversity team

If you have an Inclusion and Diversity team, think about its responsibilities and how you set up the team for success. You can’t expect junior people to lead a culture change without CEO and senior-leadership prioritisation. They should be there to support your organisation’s anti-racism vision and strategy – not to deliver it. That’s the job of everyone together.

Please share this blog with your teams to ensure that they understand their responsibility as an inclusive colleague.

For more support in embedding an anti-racist culture, take a look at Inclusive Employers’ anti-racism toolkit, ‘Building anti-racist cultures: a toolkit for your workplace’. Our 162-page toolkit is a practical resource designed to support organisations to combat racism in the workplace and includes a series of ‘how to’ guides.