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Handbags at Dawn?

Are the recent articles in the press about Oprah Winfrey’s claims she was a victim of racism getting out of hand?

What started off as a story she retold during an interview to promote her new movie, has now appeared in every newspaper and online daily. Was it actual racism though or just a story that has blown out of all proportion!

Oprah claims that while in an upmarket store in Switzerland recently that she'd experienced racism. She was eyeing up a crocodile-skin purse, yet when she asked to see it a sales associate refused to help, telling her the purse was too expensive for her. After repeating her request, Ms Winfrey says she was told, "No, no, no, you don't want to see that one, you want to see this one, because that one will cost too much and you will not be able to afford that." Now with an estimated earnings of $77 million last year, there is no question that Oprah could easily afford the purse, but did the sales girl make a racial slur or was she merely doing her job?

Now the upmarket store (which Oprah did not want to name) has responded and its owner Frau Goertz said yesterday “For God’s sake, no! I do not judge people according to their skin colour, nor their income. I treat everyone equally. And I also expect my employees to do the same”.

She has defended the Italian sales associate who is now lying low due to fear of “public hatred”. Frau Goertz has said there will be no repercussions for her employee and that she did everything right. In a possible dig to Oprah’s diva tendencies “I don’t know why she talked about racism; perhaps she is being a little over sensitive here. Maybe it’s just a case that she was offended because she was not immediately recognised in the store? In this country international stars appreciate that we leave them in peace and she was merely being directed to other bags in the shop that were cheaper to show her different options”.

Whatever happened in the Swiss store, hopefully the sales associate and the business will not suffer too much as a result of a possible use of the racism card from such an outspoken and well known star, just to possibly help promote a movie release. Even Oprah’s now suggesting that things might have gone a bit too far......

It’s made us think in the office today though how something so small as a comment or remark taken the wrong way can get totally out of hand and end up being a possible case for discrimination and that we should always be mindful of this in the workplace. Something as minor as calling a Welsh person “Taffy” is mild but technically it’s racial harassment.

Discrimination in the workplace occurs when an employer – or indeed a colleague – treats an employee less favourably in comparison to others on grounds of a protected characteristic (age, gender, race etc.). These laws such as this are designed to protect both the employee from unwanted and often painful discriminatory acts, and the employer from claims of unlawful discrimination.

To help prevent discrimination in your workplace or for advice on how to deal with a discrimination claim, you need to ensure you have workplace standards (a policy) and communicate them and ensure that they are followed.

Russell HR Consulting provides training to help you stay out of trouble. If you’re thinking about running some dignity at work training sessions, get in touch.

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