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Racist training "tips" land department store in hot water

24 July 2013

A prominent US retailer is in hot water over a clumsily worded training document, designed to help managers respond to cultural differences. Three workers who complained about the document and were subsequently dismissed are now suing the company.

Even to the untrained eye, the training document in question rings all sorts of alarm bells. In reference to Hispanic workers, the document notes that "not everyone wears a sombrero" and goes on to outline some common stereotypes, all quite derogatory.

According to the allegations, in reference to Hispanic workers the document contained these points:

a. Food: not everyone eats tacos and burritos;

b. Music: not everyone dances to salsa;

c. Dress: not everyone wears a sombrero;

d. Mexicans (lower education level, some may be undocumented);

e. Cubans (Political refugees, legal status, higher education level); and

f. They may say 'OK, OK' and pretend to understand, when they do not, just to save face.

The sad fact is that this move was purportedly intended to address discriminatory and offensive behaviour, the document was entitled "Organisation Effectiveness, Employee and Labour Relations Multi-Cultural Tips."

Three workers who complained about this and other behaviour at their workplace were then dismissed, leading them to take legal action against the company in question.

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Although the company has apologised it was keen to point out the creation of this document was not sanctioned by senior management and it was only used in a very small workgroup.

This case highlights the importance of ensuring managers and supervisors receive Equal Employment Opportunity training and understand what constitutes discrimination.

Under Australian law, the document outlined above does not sit comfortably with our Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) legislation. The Fair Work Act 2009 provides a range of "general protections", one of which states that employees are entitled to a workplace free of unlawful discrimination.

Unlawful discrimination covers a wide range of attributes, including but not limited to – race, colour, sex, sexual preference, age, disability, marital status, family or carer's responsibilities, religion, political opinion and national extraction.

Employers need to take their responsibilities seriously. Policies and procedures must be carefully considered to ensure they do not discriminate against anyone, either directly or indirectly. As always, a policy is only as good as its application – employers also have a responsibility to ensure all workers understand the law and their role in preventing discrimination. Organisations should consider building Equal Opportunity Employment training into their induction program and ongoing professional development.

Beyond Equal Employment Opportunity training, think about your organisation's dispute resolution processes too. In this case, the employees allege that they were dismissed because of their complaint of discrimination. To prevent such an incident, ensure your grievance processes are clear, fair and transparent, and make sure every employee knows how to voice a complaint and what to expect when they do so.

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