Is name-calling in the office discrimination?

21 November 2010
Is name-calling in the office discrimination?

Q: I wanted to know whether name-calling qualifies as harassment under the Equality Act 2010? I have a team member who is regularly called names at work and don't feel that it's appropriate.

A basic definition of harassment is laid out in section 26 of the Equality Act 2010.

Protected characteristic
For name-calling to qualify as harassment under the Equality Act 2010, it's important first that the name relates to a "protected characteristic". This characteristic could be the individual's age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation.  It's probably best to take the name in question, and ask whether it pokes fun at (i) one of the above characteristics or (ii) some result of that protected characteristic.

For example, an older (or younger!) team member might be called "granny". This would be based on the individual's age. Calling a Muslim "Osama" or a Buddhist "Buddha" will clearly relate to the individual's religion. Some more obscure name-calling may be legitimately related to other protected characteristics. For example, "shortie" may be to do with a person's ethnic background, gender or disability. Another individual might be called "fatty". If their weight were related to a recognised medical condition, this name-calling might be legitimately linked to their disability.

More often than not, name-calling will relate to one or more of the above characteristics. Even, if it does not, it's good to raise the issue nonetheless since employers have a responsibility to ensure their staff's wellbeing.

The name-calling must be unwanted. This will usually be judged according to the perception of the individual who the name-calling is directed at. However if someone overhearing the name-calling finds it undesirable, they may also claim harassment, even if the name-calling is not directed at them and they do not share the relevant characteristic that it pokes fun at.

Violating dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the individual

This is a broad way of saying that the name-calling has a negative effect on the individual concerned - or to someone overhearing the name-calling.

For example, you may be an asian female who regularly hears a caucasian member of your team being called "gori" by another asian colleague. Although the white colleague may take the name in good humour, you may find the name-calling offensive and derogatory. Even though the name is not directed at you and you are not white, you can still complain of harassment. The name-calling is based on ethnic origin and you find it unwanted, humiliating and degrading.

What should you do if you find name-calling in your workplace?
In the first place, it's best to raise the issue with a line manager and request that action is taken. If an informal resolution is not found, then follow the bullying and harassment procedures of your organisation (often this involves raising a written grievance).

From an organisation's perspective, it's best to ensure that staff and line managers are trained on discrimination - so that they know what discriminatory behaviour looks like. In this way, staff are more aware of their rights - and action is taken earlier. This helps to ensure that the issues are properly resolved.

For further information see:

The Equality and Human Right Commission or call the EHRC helpline.

Please note that HRBird by its very nature offers general information. If you're looking for advice specific to your situation, speak to an HR professional or solicitor. Got a question on staff or volunteers? To submit an anonymous query for the HRBird blog, contact us.

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