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Racial harassment is a serious issue for many workplaces in New Zealand. Your business should address this issue seriously and take proactive steps. Racial harassment includes behaviour that expresses hostility, contempt or ridicule against an employee because of their race or ethnicity. It should be noted that there are many different ways in which this can occur. Therefore, it is essential for you, as an employer, to be aware of what constitutes racial harassment and eradicate it in your workplace.

This article will explore:

  • the legal definition of racial harassment;
  • common examples of behaviour that typically amounts to racial harassment; and 
  • what happens when a customer racially harasses an employee. 

What Is Racial Harassment?

Racial and ethnic harassment remains a serious issue in New Zealand. Therefore, it can have corrosive effects on the people affected and the culture of the workplace. Employers have an obligation under employment law and health and safety law to protect their workers from racial harassment. 

You must take a zero-tolerance approach to racial harassment in the workplace.

Additionally, racial harassment has a specific definition under employment law in New Zealand. An employee is racially harassed if their employer uses any kind of language or displays any kind of behaviour that:

  • expresses hostility against them, or ridicules them or otherwise brings them into contempt because of their race, colour, or ethnic or national origins;
  • is hurtful or offensive to the employee (no matter whether they let the other party know this); and
  • is so significant or repeated that it negatively affects their role, job performance, or job satisfaction.

Note that an employee may allege racial harassment if a representative of their employer also exhibits the behaviour above.

Moreover, there are similarities between racial harassment and sexual harassment. Under the law, it does not matter whether the harasser intended their behaviour to amount to racial or ethnic harassment. Instead, the emphasis under employment law is how the person affected by the conduct was affected

Examples of Racial Harassment

The definition of racial harassment is intentionally broad and covers a wide variety of behaviours and conduct that can cause harm. As an employer, you should recognise when conduct in the workplace may amount to racial harassment and swiftly move to stamp it out.

Some common examples of racial harassment include:

  • referencing racist tropes in connection with an employee; 
  • mocking an employee’s accent or pronunciation;  
  • making fun of an employee’s name; 
  • telling mocking stories about an employee’s background or family;
  • making offensive slurs or remarks about an employee’s ethnicity; and
  • making culturally insensitive remarks on purpose to an employee.

As an employer, you should also be aware of where your blind spots might be. For example, be open if an employee complains about the treatment they are getting from a specific colleague or in the workplace generally. Suppose they feel that certain behaviour, conduct or jokes are hurtful or inappropriate. In that case, you should take steps to support them and stop that behaviour, whether or not you personally understand why they are offensive. 

Racial Harassment by Customers

A difficult situation arises when a customer or client racially harasses one of your employees. Under the law, there is a process for how you and your business should resolve these situations. 

If a customer racially harasses an employee, the employee should complain to your business in writing. At that point, you must investigate to see what happened. Next, if you find that the behaviour did occur, take all reasonably practicable steps to stop it from happening again. While it can be challenging to stop racial harassment from customers, your business is obligated to do what it can and support the affected employee. 

Key Takeaways

Racial harassment is a blight on New Zealand workplaces. Racial harassment occurs when an employee at your business suffers from behaviour or conduct that expresses hostility or ridicule towards them based on their race or ethnicity, in a way that has a negative effect on their job satisfaction or performance. It is against the law in New Zealand. Likewise, employers must take active steps to stop racial harassment from happening in workplaces. If it does occur, you must appropriately deal with the issue. This also includes racial harassment by customers. In this scenario, employers must take all reasonably practicable steps to protect the affected employee from further conduct of the same nature. 

For more information about racial harassment in the workplace, contact LegalVision’s employment lawyers on 0800 005 570 or complete the form on this page.

Frequently Asked Questions

What if someone did not realise that another person could view their behaviour as racial harassment?

Under the law, it does not matter whether a harasser did not realise that their conduct could amount to racial harassment or not. Instead, the test is whether the employee found the conduct hurtful or offensive.

What happens if a customer racially harasses an employee?

Employers must take reasonably practicable steps to protect employees from racial harassment from customers. In this situation, businesses should investigate to find out what happened. Next, they must do what they reasonably can to ensure that the situation does not occur again.

Can racial harassment be a health and safety risk?

Yes, harassment of all kinds, including racial harassment, is a health and safety risk in the workplace. 

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