All employers should be aware that discrimination in the workplace on the basis of a “protected attribute” is unlawful. For example, Australia’s anti-discrimination legislation provides that it is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of “race.”

Significantly, however, the legislation extends beyond “race”: the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) (RD Act) for example, also provides that it is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of colour, descent, national or ethnic origin. In NSW, the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW) provides that it is unlawful to discriminate on the ground of race, and defines race to include colour, nationality, descent and ethnic, ethno-religious or national origin.

Australia is a diverse country and its workforce comprises of people from different backgrounds. The use of certain words – which may not be considered particularly discriminatory or derogatory in Australia – may be offensive for persons from different cultural or ethnic backgrounds. Accordingly, employers and employees should be aware that using language that may refer to a person’s ethnicity and which may not overtly refer to a person’s race will still be caught by the RD Act.

During the A-League game between Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City this month, Melbourne City’s goalkeeper was caught on camera calling a Melbourne Victory player, who is of Albanian nationality, a “f***king gypsy”. While the goalkeeper admitted that he made the remarks, he also sought to explain that he did not know that the term was offensive and swiftly issued an apology.

Football Federation Australia (FFA) was also as swift in its punishment and has banned the Melbourne City goalkeeper for five games after it found that the player used discriminatory, including racist, religious, ethnic or sexist language toward the Melbourne Victory player.

Not only was the conduct against the spirit of the game, it was also racially discriminatory, particularly when you consider that the players were at their ‘workplace’ namely on the football field when it occurred.

What should employers do?

  • Adopt an anti-discrimination policy which provides that all forms of discrimination (including on the basis of race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin) is not tolerated in the workplace.
  • Carry out regular training sessions for all employees to reinforce that discriminatory language and behaviour in the workplace should not be used. Cultural intelligence training may also be beneficial to raise awareness of cultural diversity.
  • Act immediately to address and correct any behaviour which may be considered discriminatory.

What does this mean for sporting organisations?

  • Sporting organisations must also comply with Australia’s anti-discrimination legislation – for athletes and sporting professionals, the workplace includes the sporting field.
  • Train team members in appropriate on-field behaviour and what amounts to discriminatory conduct.
  • Address any behaviour which may be considered discriminatory, for example, if it is not appropriate for an office environment then it is not appropriate for the sporting field or locker room.