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COVID-19: Potential risk of harassment in the workplace

Lois McArdle warns of the risk of perceptions that BAME employees are more likely to get COVID-19 and encourages employers to be tough on harassment.

At the present time, there is a risk that employees may be harassed by colleagues in the workplace because they are perceived to be at greater risk of having the virus because of their ethnic background.

Social stigma in relation to health is the negative association between a person or group of people who share certain characteristics and a specific disease. In the current circumstances, this may mean people are stereotyped and discriminated against because of a perceived link with COVID-19.

Lack of understanding, anxiety and fear can cause people to behave irrationally and employers should be alive to the risk of this resulting in discriminatory behaviour in the workplace which could result in serious consequences including:

  • Mental health implications for those targeted by their colleagues and resultant sickness absence.
  • The risk workers could hide the illness to avoid discrimination.
  • A deterioration in the culture of the organisation and potential loss of staff.

For the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, anything done by an employee in the course of their employment is treated as having also been done by the employer.

The employer can be liable for harassment in these circumstances, whether or not the harassment is done with the employer's knowledge or approval.

The employer will have a defence if it can show that it took "all reasonable steps" to prevent the employee from doing the discriminatory act or from doing anything of that description.

It is likely that many employers will already have an anti-harassment policy and so now would be a good time to ensure all workers are aware of this and understand what constitutes inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.

The language used by the employer and in the workplace is also critically important as this can fuel stigmatising attitudes, perpetuate negative stereotypes and strengthen existing false associations regarding the virus.

The official name for the disease was chosen to avoid stigmatisation – the “co” stands for Corona, “vi” for virus and “d” for disease, 19 is because the disease emerged in 2019.

Employers need to be mindful of not attaching an ethnicity or location to the virus in their communications with workers and not condoning their workers doing so.

Now would be a good time for employers to reinforce their zero tolerance approach to harassment to their workforce, explain how behaviour relating to the pandemic could fall foul of this, and also examine their own communications with their workforce.

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