Mind your Words and Avoid Discrimination at Work

The office banter. The casual joke. The seemingly harmless comment. In a fast-paced world, it's easy to overlook the power of language. But choose your words poorly in the workplace, and you could find yourself on the wrong side of the law.

The Equality Act 2010 protects employees from discrimination based on nine protected characteristics, including race, sex, disability, and age. It also provides protection against discrimination during pregnancy or maternity leave, whether because of the pregnancy itself, or because of illness suffered because of it.  

And one recent case highlights how stereotypical comments about pregnancy can be unlawful.  Here, a pregnant employee successfully claimed for discrimination and constructive dismissal when her working relationship with managers became difficult after she announced her pregnancy, continuing through to her return after maternity leave.  In one exchange she was called ‘very emotional and tearful’ and the employment tribunal found that her male boss had ‘stereotyped’ her as ‘an emotional, hormonal, pregnant woman and that in the particular circumstances his description of her … was dismissive and belittling’.

“Language laden with stereotypes or assumptions can have serious consequences,” explained Nour Belal, Head of Employment Law.  “This reaches into the heart of the culture of your organisation and it’s worth reviewing with managers the importance of being mindful of what they say. 

“All of us carry unconscious biases and we may need to be encouraged to consider what those might be and how our use of language may reflect these biases.  Comments made as a ‘joke’ or even as a so-called compliment can cause problems, if they are uninvited and inappropriate.” 

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That’s demonstrated by another recent case, where a tribunal found that introducing a female employee as ‘glamorous’ in a business context was potentially a breach of employment law, saying: “Looked at objectively, it could be taken as undermining or belittling the person being described, making them seem less serious and professional.”  The case involved a female barrister employed by a local authority and the tribunal said that being introduced in this way had the potential to be harassment, as defined by the Equality Act.

Added Nour: “The use of language sets the stage within the work environment, and  whether it’s directly unpleasant, or so-called banter that makes someone feel uncomfortable or excluded, it’s likely to result in low morale and decreased productivity, and could, ultimately, lead to legal action. 

“So, making sure everyone is kept up to date on how to mind their words, through both workshops and internal resources, is an important step towards managing the risk.”

Some tips for employers to foster inclusion and avoid discrimination include:

  • Be mindful of stereotypes: Challenge assumptions about people based on their protected characteristics.
  • Use inclusive language: Address people by their preferred pronouns and avoid gendered terms for roles or tasks.
  • Focus on skills and experience: Evaluate colleagues based on their abilities, not their background or gender.
  • Educate yourself and your team: Have regular workshops and training on unconscious bias and inclusive language.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/) has resources that offers guidance on the Equality Act and inclusive workplaces.

Our Employment Law Team has a wealth of experience advising employers and employees on the policies and procedures around this matter. If you are a business or an employee facing a potential claim, give Nour Belal and her employment team, a call on 01256 844888 or email them via our enquiry form on our website.

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