Organisations which want to become more inclusive often put in place diversity training for their staff. Indeed, providing such training is essential for an employer to have even a chance of avoiding liability for discrimination and harassment by staff. Most employers recognise the risks of out-of-date or cursory training, which is unlikely to help in defending any claims. However, an less widely-known risk is that the training itself can generate disputes. Diversity training often addresses potentially contentious topics such as personal identity, privilege and unconscious bias. Discussion of these topics is important, but can also cause strong reactions from staff - and even result in disputes. A recent case illustrates the care which employers must take in managing how such training is provided.
Lloyds Bank provided training on issues of race for around 72,000 staff as part of its Race Action Plan. At one of these sessions, an employee (who was dyslexic) asked a question about terms which would be offensive if used by white people but not when used by members of a particular minority group to refer to themselves, and gave the example of the N-word (which he said in full). He was dismissed for gross misconduct, but an Employment Tribunal upheld his claim for unfair dismissal and disability discrimination. It was accepted that he used the word without malice and was asking a genuine and and relevant (if poorly-worded) question. It was also acknowledged that due to his dyslexia, the claimant sometimes found it challenging to articulate his thoughts verbally.
The Tribunal's decision seems reasonable in the particular context, particularly in light of the claimant's disability and immediate apology. But it highlights the need for employers to manage diversity training carefully. Employers should consider the following:
- Exercise care in choosing external providers. Charities and campaign groups often provide such training and have huge expertise, but may also have a particular slant on the issues. Where the provider is stating their own personal/ organisational view, this should be made clear.
- Review the training materials in advance to ensure that they are appropriate for the workforce. Make sure the materials distinguish clearly between legal requirements, best practice and aspiration.
- Brief staff on what is expected of them during the training. In this case, the employees had been told that they should "lean into" any discomfort talking about race issues, and this may have contributed to the situation which arose.
- Anticipate and address technical issues. In this case, many staff, including the claimant, joined the (online) training late due to IT issues, meaning they missed a briefing on acceptable language at the start of the session.
- Consider a debrief with staff after the training, to ensure that key messages have been understood and can be applied effectively in the workplace.
Although equality training is an essential part of a business' EDI and ESG strategies, businesses also need to ensure that it is appropriate, well-delivered and constructive in order to realise its value.