On 24th June, we all woke up to a very different Britain. Political and economical uncertainty are worrying enough, but have racism and xenophobia also become the ugly by-product of Brexit?  And what can employers do to tackle the issue?  

Post – Brexit Britain: a polarised nation.

There’s no two ways about it, Brexit has polarised Britain. Apathy has given way to engagement in the political and economical future of our country. Debate rages on within political parties, workplaces, families, and friendship groups, whether fuelled by panic, uncertainty and fear, or positivity, anticipation and bullish confidence about the road ahead. And there’s nothing wrong with that, per se. It is, after all, a free country. We are all entitled to a voice and in the current climate there is a heightened appetite for people to express strong views and feel heard.

But, without a healthy dose of tolerance, acceptance and perspective, debate can descend into mud slinging.   And for many foreign nationals and immigrants that feeling is all too palpable. Because, for all that Brexit has brought out the best in us (by engaging us more closely in the future of our country), it has also brought out the very worst in some. By ‘some’, I mean racists.

The impact on foreign nationals.

 According to a report in The Independent (22nd July) the number of hate crime offences during the first two weeks of July (in the immediate wake of the referendum results) were 20% per cent higher than the same period last year. And the National Police Chiefs’ Council said in a report earlier this month that the figures for the last two weeks in June represent a 42% rise on this time last year. The most commonly reported crimes were harassment, assault, verbal abuse and spitting, with Muslim and Eastern European people targeted in particular.

It seems that, even if only amongst the more extreme, Brexit has not only awoken an inner political voice, but has also brought to the surface a racist streak within our community. It certainly seems that, on 24th June, we all woke up to a very different Britain. Not only a Britain that faces up to an uncertain political and economical future, but also a Britain whose newspapers are filled with stories of racism, xenophobia and hate crime the like of which appear to have set us back several decades in terms of our social advancement.   In the words of Joanna Ciechanowska (Director of the Polish, Social and Cultural Centre in Hammersmith), who has lived in the UK for 35 years, “All of a sudden a small group of extremists feel empowered. The margins of society feel that they can do it because they think they have the support of half of the nation”. Her words followed the discovery of racist graffiti scrawled across the doors of the Centre.

There have been physical assaults on people, based purely on the colour of their skin. Verbal ‘go home’ abuse is being hurled at people, simply for innocently conversing in their native tongue in public. Cards, printed in Polish and English, were distributed in Cambridgeshire directly to the Polish community: ‘Leave the EU, no more Polish vermin’, was the charming message posted through their letterboxes, and held aloft on placards outside schools, no less. Is this Britain’s finest hour? Most definitely not.

And employers should be wise to what goes on in the workplace too. The latest issue of ‘People Management’ (magazine of the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development) cites examples of alarmingly divisive behaviour, ranging from a woman who arrived at work to be greeted by a Nazi salute, to staff whose desks had been cleared by colleagues ‘as a joke’.  And, albeit not intended as a racist remark, it is surprising how many amongst us have deemed it appropriate to make crass remarks to our European countrymates and colleagues, such as ‘Are you worried you will have to be deported?’.

Thankfully, for all that there are some shocking stories of (at worst) racism, hate crime, and (at best) general lack of ‘appropriateness filter’, these have been countered with actions that serve to restore faith in the British spirit with which we are more familiar and comfortable. That being one of acceptance, solidarity and inclusion. In the wake of the aforementioned abuse targeted at the Polish community, there was an almost immediate rally of support, with flowers and messages of sympathy sent to the Centre in Hammersmith from shocked members of the local community.

Of course hate crime and racism isn’t new. It wasn’t a perfect world before the referendum. Racism has always been there; with all the right ingredients to spread like wildfire, barring a spark. Enter the ‘anti immigrant’ contingent of the Leave campaign with their inflammatory rhetoric, and BOOM. Job done. In reality, Brexit isn’t the cause of racism itself; it didn’t make racist bigots out of previously tolerant and inclusive citizens. What it has done is uncover the scale of a racism problem that has always existed. Thankfully among the minority, but sadly with dire enough consequences to carry a powerful and worrying voice.

What can employers do?

 Plenty, is the simple answer. Tensions may well be running high, and it is unrealistic to imagine that people won’t be sharing views on the subject of Brexit over a coffee break. Not only do you have a moral obligation to make sure that such debates and discussions remain within appropriate boundaries, but you also have a legal obligation too. Vicarious liability means that, as an employer, you can be held liable for the actions of your employees, provided it can be shown that they took place in the context of the workplace. So, here’s five suggestions to ensure your moral and legal obligations are properly met:-

  • Start with reaffirming core values around diversity and inclusion, sending the message, loud and clear, that racism in any shape or form is not tolerated in the workplace. Be explicitly clear (re-circulate the company policy if necessary) about the disciplinary ramifications of any reported racist abuse.
  • Make sure that your employees are aware that their actions both inside and outside the workplace can have consequences for them where there can be a direct and genuine connection made with the work environment. This includes online activity, such as social media.
  • Ensure that employees are clear on the channels for reporting any concerns, whether they have simply witnessed inappropriate behaviour from one colleague to another, or have been the victim themselves.
  • Provide and publicise support channels (either within or external to the business – or even both!). Reporting racism, harassment or victimisation can be a scary leap of faith. Victims may need more support than you have the resource or training to provide, and having a robust and accessible employee assistance programme can make the journey a lot less lonely for those involved.
  • Above all, celebrate the diversity within your organisation. Get creative, go viral, and spread the love. There have been some shining examples of this since the news of the referendum broke last month. Take, for example, the NHS, 5% of whose employees are EU migrants. Their hashtag #LoveOurEUStaff went viral following the vote to leave the European Union, and demonstrated the strength of support and appreciation for the invaluable contribution made by European colleagues to the UK’s health service.

We all want to live in a Great Britain to be proud of, a Great Britain that can still call itself Great, no matter what becomes of its physical borders. For most of us, that means embracing the diversity that has contributed to our economic, social and political progress to date. To quote Peter Cheese (Chief Executive, CIPD), ‘Business should be a force for good, but it needs to act with integrity, to be more transparent and to take the lead on tolerance and acceptance. In a world that seems to be becoming ever more unpredictable, we should be shifting focus from the things that make us different to the things that bind us together’.

Visit our website www.great{with}diversity.com for more information about our products and services.