Recent media reports about a bank customer ridiculed for having ginger hair has stirred the debate about the extent of discrimination laws in the UK
The issue arose when a female bank customer received a quip from a worker at the branch who said, "I bet your daughter is glad she isn't ginger like you". The bank was forced to apologise to the customer and paid her a small sum of compensation.
The story follows previous media interest in the subject of "gingerism", such as when Harriet Harman caused a storm at the Labour Party's Scottish conference in 2010 after she referred to a Liberal Democrat Minister as a "ginger rodent".
The extent of the UK's equality laws has long been the subject of debate. The Equality Act 2010 recently consolidated into one piece of legislation all of the protected characteristics that the government has determined are worthy of protection against discrimination in the workplace, including characteristics such as a person's sex, race, age or disability.
Many commentators argue that a number of other characteristics, which are not presently protected within the scope of discrimination laws, are nevertheless ones where workers do suffer discrimination and harassment because of that characteristic and should be similarly protected.
Ginger people ask why comments about the colour of their hair should be regarded any less seriously than comments about the colour of someone's skin? In twenty first century Britain, racist comments are not just unlawful but also socially unacceptable. Abuse of red headed people is not so regarded: culturally they are often seen to be "fair game" for teasing and bullying about their appearance.
Ginger hair is one of the characteristics commonly cited as needing specific protection, along with matters such as a person's weight, or being bald. It remains the case that discrimination on account of a person having these characteristics is not specifically protected by the law. The perceived wisdom is that discriminating against a person because they are a redhead is perfectly legal.
However any person suffering discrimination on account of having ginger hair may seek to draw on other discrimination laws, albeit there is no reported case where this has been successfully argued. Under the Equality Act individuals are protected against discrimination and harassment because of their race and this includes ethnic and national origins. Statistically, certain parts of the UK have a higher proportion of red heads. For example, whilst only 3% of people in the British Isles have red hair that figure rises to 13% in Scotland.
There is an argument that "gingeriest" comments could indirectly affect people of certain nationalities or ethnicities more than others and this may be enough to found a claim.
Whilst such claims would be fact specific, employers would be well advised to make sure that their equality and diversity training extends beyond the obvious so that employees are fully aware what is and isn't acceptable behaviour in the workplace.
As the bank found to its cost in this case, sometimes complying with the letter of the law is not enough, treating all employees and customers with respect and dignity is key.