Navigating Cultural Conversations: Insights from Sushi-Related Race Discrimination Case

In Ms Sato-Rossberg v SOAS University of London, the educational institute defended itself against a professor’s race discrimination claim. This comes after the professor alleged a sushi comment was racist due to her ethnicity. 

Join us as we discuss what happened and why the tribunal ruled against the academic. We explore the benefits of discussing cultural differences in the workplace and what to do if faced with workplace discrimination.

If you have faced discrimination at work, please don’t hesitate to contact Redmans Solicitors now. We have years of experience in the employment law sector, which enables us to provide specialist advice concerning your issue. Following a quick consultation, we can advise you on your possible next steps.

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Employment Tribunal Dismisses Race Discrimination Claim Over Sushi Comment

Sushi Talks Take a Turn

Professor Sato-Rossberg (“the Claimant”) began her tenure at SOAS University of London (“the Respondent”) in 2014 as a lecturer in translation studies and the Japanese language. In August 2019, she advanced to the position of head of the Languages, Culture, and Linguistics department.

Approximately a year later, Professor Ozanne was appointed the University’s deputy director and provost, thus becoming the claimant’s superior. This change didn’t sit well with Ms Sato-Rossberg, leading to several incidents, including one on 13 September 2021. On that day, while the claimant waited outside for a meeting, Ms Ozanne invited her into her office and initiated a conversation about a Japanese sushi restaurant near her home that her family enjoyed.

Ms Sato-Rossberg, a Japanese woman, found the comment unsettling. She explained to the tribunal that her manager would not have said to a German individual, “I like sausage”. Moreover, she emphasised that she didn’t initiate the conversation and felt that her manager assumed she would appreciate discussing Japan. She claimed this was something that was “biased in the first place”.

Furthermore, the claimant argued that if her manager wanted to engage in conversation, they had numerous professional “commonalities” to discuss. Therefore, she found it inappropriate to focus solely on topics linked to her ethnicity, such as associating her Japanese heritage with a liking for sushi. 

ET Throws Out Race Discrimination Claim

Following continued tensions between her and the respondent, Ms Sato-Rossberg stepped down from her head of department role on 31 July 2022. Subsequently, she filed for employment tribunal proceedings on the grounds of race discrimination.

However, the tribunal found no evidence supporting her claims. They concluded that Ms Ozanne spoke warmly about her local restaurant, believing the topic would be well-received by Ms Sato-Rossberg due to her Japanese background. The tribunal noted that the manager’s comments weren’t derogatory towards Japan but were an attempt to establish a common interest. Consequently, they dismissed the race discrimination claim and any others made.

Advantages of Addressing Cultural Differences in the Workplace

Although the above case wasn’t an instance of race discrimination, it underscores the importance of fostering a positive workplace culture. Embracing diversity within this culture can significantly enhance understanding and promote equality.

One effective strategy to achieve this is facilitating discussions about cultural differences. Such conversations help colleagues understand each other’s backgrounds and appreciate their unique perspectives.

To begin with, employers should provide individuals with a safe space to share their backgrounds. This could be through newsletters, team meetings, or the company website. Enabling workers to discuss their cultural differences helps colleagues develop greater awareness and overcome inequality.

Additionally, employers should encourage inclusive conversations between colleagues. Despite learning about various cultures, everyone is different. By taking the time to understand the acceptable boundaries for each individual, workers can foster a greater sense of belonging and improve the overall workplace culture.

Another way to promote diversity through conversation is for employers to engage in cultural occasions actively. Celebrating events such as Holi, the Hindu Festival of Color, can spark discussions about cultural differences. These celebrations help broaden understanding and create a more inclusive workplace.

Finally, it is essential to remember that people make mistakes. Misunderstandings are acceptable as long as an individual is genuinely interested in learning about another’s background and is attempting to broaden their cultural awareness. If someone unintentionally asks an uncomfortable question or misinterprets a colleague’s body language, it is important that these mistakes are seen as learning opportunities. Honest mistakes, when learned from, contribute to improving diversity in the workplace.

Tips to Tackle Personal Experiences of Workplace Discrimination

In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 establishes that individuals mustn’t be treated less favourably due to their protected characteristics, which include their gender, age, and race. The legalisation also outlines that employers must do all they reasonably can to protect people from discrimination.

If an individual experiences discrimination at work, they should first raise a grievance with their employer. Depending on the circumstances, this could be an informal or formal complaint. Should the employer fail to resolve the issue effectively, the individual may want to initiate employment tribunal proceedings.

Contact us today if you have faced race discrimination at work and want to claim compensation. Redmans Solicitors are employment law specialists who could uncover your claim eligibility once we have discussed your circumstances.

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