“Great big girl’s blouse!” or “a girly swot”. Harmless insults; a bit of banter; or perhaps an example of sexist language? Deborah Haynes, a journalist with Sky News, certainly took the view that these remarks were sexist in nature – even though men were the targets (see the link below).
The first of these remarks was uttered allegedly by Prime Minister Boris Johnson MP in the House of Commons last week and directed towards the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn MP. The second remark was in a memo written by the Prime Minister in which he was critical of David Cameron (one of his predecessors).
Mr Johnson is well known for his colourful language in both print and in his speeches, but he was called out last week in the House of Commons by the Labour MP, Tammanjeet Singh Dhesi who accused him in very blunt terms of making racist remarks about Muslim women who chose to wear the Islamic form of dress known as the burka as an outward sign of their religious beliefs and cultural background.
Mr Tammanjeet drew on his own experiences as a Sikh and the kinds of derogatory remarks that he had to endure. His speech was received very warmly on the Opposition benches of the House of Commons.
On the other hand, Mr Johnson attempted a defence of his language by saying that he had merely spoken up in favour of the good old fashioned liberal value of freedom of speech. It was not an entirely convincing performance from the Prime Minister and far from his finest hour at the despatch box.
The Equality Act 2010 recognises various forms of prohibited conduct such as direct discrimination (Section 13) and harassment (Section 26). Sexist, sectarian and homophobic remarks may well be taken as examples of direct discrimination. A sustained campaign of bullying to which an individual (with a particular protected characteristic) is subjected may amount to harassment.
It will be sensible for employers particularly to spell out to employees what is acceptable (and what is not) in terms of the kinds of language or behaviour in the work-place. If employers do nothing to check discriminatory remarks such as racist or sexist insults, there is a real danger that they could be held vicariously liable.
Had Mr Johnson been a mere mortal, some of his remarks may have come back to haunt him. Employers are entitled to take disciplinary action against those employees who have committed acts of discrimination. After all, they are merely protecting their position by not leaving themselves open to the threat of legal action by the victims.
From the employee’s perspective, engaging in offensive language could give the employer the right to treat this type of behaviour as gross misconduct. It should be recalled that, in terms of Section 98 of the Employment Rights Act 1998, misconduct committed by an employee can be punished by dismissal and such a termination of the employment contract may be entirely reasonable in the circumstances.
In short, no one should have to work in a place where there is a hostile, degrading or intimidating environment. Racist or sexist remarks can be highly suggestive of such a working environment if permitted to go unchecked and unchallenged. Maybe in future the Prime Minister would do well to mind his language.
Links to articles about the Prime Minister’s colourful turn of phrase can be found below:
Copyright Seán J Crossan, 7 September 2019