Brexit and Managing Equality and Diversity in the Workplace


In the build up to last year’s referendum and following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, many have commented on a divided society and strong feelings held by some sections of society, against immigration and the future rights of foreign nationals to live and work in the UK. During this time reported incidents of Hate Crime based upon race and sexual orientation has increased significantly in the UK.

Brexit is a huge development which is undoubtedly affecting British society but how does this impact on employment? Has the UK’s view of Equality and Diversity in the workplace changed? What are an employer’s responsibilities to avoid Brexit related discrimination in the workplace?

Discrimination relating to Brexit:

Before examining related workplace developments, it is useful to first look at developments within wider society. With a UK population of over 65 million, and a voting margin of 52% to 48%, over 33.6 million people voted in the referendum and 16 million people voted leave, whilst over 15 million people voted to remain and it is unknown what the political view of the over 31 million UK residents who did not vote are.

There was a sharp increase in the number of racially or religiously aggravated crimes recorded by police in England and Wales following the EU referendum. In July 2016, the police force recorded a 41 per cent increase compared to the same month the year before, according to a Home Office report. These official figures appear to correlate with previous reports of a rise in ‘post-Brexit’ hate crime. Data from 31 police forces showed that 1,546 racially or religiously aggravated offences were recorded in the two weeks up to and including the day of the referendum on June 23 2016. But in the fortnight immediately after the poll, the number climbed by almost half to 2,241. In September 2016, the National Police Chiefs’ Council released figures which showed the number of incidents rose by 58 per cent in the week following the vote to leave the EU.

“Nobody in this country should have to live their lives enduring fear, intimidation or – in a third of cases – violence because of who they are,” said Mark Hamilton, the National Police Chiefs’ lead on hate crime. The Home Office report confirmed that while 3,886 hate crimes were recorded by the police back in July 2015, this jumped to 5,468 in July 2016. The peak daily total between May and August was seen on 1 July, when 207 alleged race or religious hate crimes were recorded. In July, The Independent was given access to a database of more than 500 racist incidents compiled in the weeks since the EU referendum. These included assaults, arson attacks and dog excrement being thrown at doors or shoved through letter boxes.

40-year-old Polish national Arek Jóźwik was killed in August 2016 in what was believed to be a hate crime in Harlow, Essex. Mr Jóźwik’s brother said he was attacked after he was heard speaking Polish and he died in hospital two days later. The Home Office has reported that there had been an increase of 19 per cent in hate crimes in the year between April 2015 and October 2016, and included a section dedicated to violence seen after the EU referendum. The violence seen after the Brexit vote was not restricted to racial or religious hostility, according to an LGBT charity. Galop, which supports victims of homophobic violence, said homophobic attacks rose by 147% in the three months following the Brexit vote. Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan police commissioner, told a hearing at London’s City Hall that hate crime was showing signs of decreasing after a sharp rise in June and July, but it had still not returned to pre-referendum levels. It also showed that in the 38 days after the referendum there were more than 2,300 recorded race-hate offences in London, compared with 1,400 in the 38 days before the vote. Hogan-Howe expressed alarm about the figures. “We saw this horrible spike after Brexit,” he said, confirming his belief that there is a connection between the referendum and many of the incidents.

Figures from the National Police Chiefs’ Council showed a 49% rise in hate crime incidents to 1,863 in the last week in July in England, Wales and Northern Ireland compared with 2015. “We have fortunately seen it start to come back down, but I’m not sure we can say yet it is back to previous levels.”

In November 2016 Sophie Linden, London’s deputy mayor for policing, said she was still getting daily reports about hate crime in the capital. “It is worrying that it does not appear to have gone back down to pre-referendum levels.”

On 15 Febuary 2017, David Isaac, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, warned that many people remained anxious. “It must be sensible to prepare for any possible spikes during the Brexit process and the triggering of Article 50 is the next major milestone and we must do all we can to discourage hate attacks and to support people who feel at risk.”

These statistics are worrying and may be indicative of portions of society deciding that it is acceptable to express violence and hatred towards protected religious beliefs, LGBT and other minority groups. Although specific criminal legislation exists to protect minorities which carry considerably heavier prison sentences than non-hate crimes, what about workplace discrimination? While it is accepted that serious hate crime and serious acts of discrimination is in general under reported and that the reported incidents tend to be the more serious ones, what of subtler or less obvious poor treatment of minorities?

What protection do employees have within the UK’s diverse workplace in this context? It is useful to consider an overview of Equality legislation in this context. Under the Equality Act 2010 legally protects people from discrimination, in the workplace (and indeed in wider society in terms of access to goods and services).

Workers in the UK are protected from less favourable treatment in the workplace from their employers on the grounds of sex, race, disability, sexual orientation, religion/ belief and age. Employers are also vicariously liable for the actions of both their management team and their employees that could amount to discrimination or victimisation. In addition to this of course actual criminal acts that occur within the workplace fall under criminal law and the police will investigate assault or other hate crimes reported to them.

HR issues for employers and Brexit related discrimination in the workplace.

Here at Avensure Ltd, at any given time our busy advice line for UK employers deals with a broad range of employment related issues across the spectrum of HR and workplace issues. This makes us well placed to have an objective perspective on developing trends within UK employment, particularly the HR challenges Brexit has presented. I can confirm that unfortunately there has been a definite upsurge in issues for employers in manging with diversity in the workplace issues in the build up to the referendum and since the leave vote.

A running theme has been HR issues our clients have faced when their employees have asked colleagues whom are foreign nationals highly loaded and emotive questions about whether they will have to leave the country when the UK exits the EU, or if they will stay work illegally etc.?

Even if a question like this has been asked in all innocence as opposed to having been asked with malicious intent, it may be that it an individual feel singled out for being a foreign national or of a certain ethnicity, or treated less favourably, or simply no longer welcome. Unfortunately, other examples are employees using Brexit related issues as an excuse to make derogatory comments about colleagues that amount to race or religious discrimination, harassment or victimisation after the recipient of the behaviour has made an initial complaint to their employer. These issues have taken a variety of forms from face to face interaction, to social media messages and posts.

While under the Equality Act model employees are well protected from existing legislation it is undoubtedly more complex and challenging to manage in the current social climate where a minority of the population may think that either deliberate racism is justifiable or have an overly   simplistic view that foreigners must leave when the UK leaves the EU. The bottom line is that employers have the responsibility to ensure that their employees do not suffer discrimination based upon the protected grounds above, in particular the vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities and LGBT community and what certainly appears to be a consequently higher number of equality and diversity issues in UK workplaces.

Adding further complications to this is the international political landscape with the Trump administration in the US, the wide international protest in relation to its ‘Muslim ban’ and several EU member states with rising extreme right wing political parties, with increased political influence. It’s easy to see how these developments can on the one hand worry minority groups and on the other hand make individuals incorrectly assume that racist views are acceptable within their workplace and beyond.

So in practical terms what can you as an employer do to prevent related issues happening in your workplace?


Employers have a vicarious liability for the actions of their employees and in particular their managers so the key is to manage expectations about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

Delivering Equality and Diversity refresher training as well as issuing a memo highlighting the importance of your equal opportunities policy and harassment policy is a good first step. Role play can be particularly effective in raising awareness, emphasising that discrimination legislation is based upon the perception of the recipient of the comments or behaviours of others.

Other initiatives such as a workplace Equality and Diversity Day to champion the value of understanding and appreciating the diversity you have within your workplace of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, disability and age, with the commitment to equality for all employees. These measures should go a long way to prevent deliberate or inadvertent acts of discrimination and reinforce a cohesive and equality based workplace culture.

Beyond this I would recommend that Managers are aware that they may face a workplace complaint that relates to political views of one employee versus the individual characteristics of another, with the complex politics of Brexit Britain as the backdrop. Employers emphasising a zero tolerance approach to discrimination will help to keep this to a minimum along with having the ‘soft skills’ to show understanding if an employee is distressed by particular developments reported in the media or experienced first-hand.

Examples of this could be the continued and necessary speculation by the media about the future rights of employees from other EU member states and non EU countries to continue to live and work in the UK. A lot can be achieved by being supportive and giving gentle reassurance that they work in an equal and diverse workplace at what is a worrying time for many.

As the author of this feature I am of course committed to completing an objective overview of how Brexit related discrimination is presenting challenges in terms of equality and diversity in the work place for employers. This is an emotive issue and everyone is from somewhere and everyone’s unique characteristics of race, gender, sexual orientation can come into play within their daily lives or their workplace.

Fortunately, my own working environment welcomes and supports diversity, however I have recently been asked socially within casual conversation outside of work if I will be ‘going back to my own country (Ireland) so a British person can have my job’. I found it quite straightforward to respond to this point in the manner I felt fit and I did so. However, I would make the point that if an employee was to have asked another employee this question in the world of work it’s a wholly different scenario and an employee could take offence and raise a grievance or have become upset affecting their work. An employer is responsible (vicariously liable) for the actions of its employees and must manage the issue and the risks involved.

The good news is that Avensure is here to help! As our client you have access to our 24-hour helpline with dedicated, qualified and highly experienced Employment Law Advisors providing bespoke step by step advice every step of the way if you experience equality and diversity issues or indeed any other issue across the wide spectrum of UK employment legislation.