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Hate speech in the workplace: What to do when you confront it

by , 17 April 2015
An official of the South African National Defence Union (Sandu) laid a charge of hate speech against Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini.

This following several xenophobic attacks that took place after the speech Zulu King held last year. It's widely considered that the speech he gave fueled a spate of xenophobic attacks in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).

The violence caused deaths of at least 5 people, while many others watched their possessions and businesses in flames.

But hate speech is more than just a country problem, it's a workplace one too. And here's how you can confront it...

The Durban situation highlights that hate speech leads to violence

Hate speech under no circumstance is something you can permit. There is no context where this is to be considered misunderstood although some acts still leave room for interpretations.

So what can you do if there's a hate speech incident at your work?


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What you need to know about hate speech and your employees' human rights

When you are confronted with a situation like this, you should know how to manage conflict properly to avoid a more negative response and increase the conflict dimensions.

Remember that the right to freedom of expression, which can be regarded as one of the essential foundations of a democratic society, is one of the fundamental rights entrenched in the Bill of Rights. In this sense, Stopracism.ca reminds us that section 16 of the Bill provides that:

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes -

(a) freedom of the press and other media;

(b) freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;

(c) freedom of artistic creativity; and

(d) academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.

(2) The right in subsection (1) does not extend to -

(a) propaganda for war;

(b) incitement of imminent violence; or

(c) advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.


"There is no need to debate issues such as whether hate speech should be heard and the consequences dealt with, or whether censorship should be applied, with the danger that the ideas of bigots may be driven underground, sympathy for their views increased and resentment towards minority groups - who are seen as benefitting from the censorship -fuelled.28 The debate which has been raging elsewhere, namely whether hate speech should be protected as expressions of thought, or whether it should be repressed as infringements on the right to equality - in short whether equality or freedom of expression should be considered as the most important constitutional value - has to a large extent been made unnecessary in South Africa", the same source adds.

What to do when you're confronted with an incident of workplace hate speech

You have to be extremely clear and specific when it comes to the internal policies of your company. If an employee uses hate speech, this would violate the employer's harassment or the equal employment policy.

Note that your power of decision in such cases is limited to the workplace behavior. Some ideas to apply when there is a conflict in the workplace which has at its core the hate speech are the following:

- check once again the company's policy. Make sure they are clear enough, and that you've also stated what the sanctions are when such a situation arises.

- address a specialist or a legal counselor.

- your team and your employees should know what hate speech represents or how discrimination of any kind won't be permitted.

If needed, organise special meetings in order to discuss and address the issue.

Keep in mind that you can be held responsible for any conflict that is not properly solved so racist and sexist speech are not to be allowed!



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