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Gingerism in the workplace could form the basis of formal grievances or constructive dismissal cases, an employment lawyer has warned. The news comes in the wake of one Newcastle family having to move house because of abuse about its members' red hair.

The Chapman family has moved home three times in three years in the Newcastle area because of abuse directed at its six red-haired members. Kevin Chapman told reporters that his 11-year-old son even attempted suicide after becoming depressed following years of abuse.

The story has led to speculation about whether insults over red hair could have the same legal status as insults regarding a person's race or gender.

Catherine Barker, an employment law specialist at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, said that though abuse related to hair colour was not afforded special status, it could still be the basis of a legal dispute.

"In the UK, anti-discrimination legislation prohibits only less favourable treatment on certain grounds – currently sex, race, disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief and, in employment, age," said Barker. "Less favourable treatment on the grounds of hair colour or appearance, except where it is linked to race, isn't specifically prohibited and name calling of someone with red hair won't amount to unlawful discrimination."

"It could however amount to bullying," she said. "In the workplace, if an employee feels that they are being bullied or harassed for any reason, for example because of their hair colour or appearance, they could lodge a grievance and ultimately could even take the fairly drastic step of resigning and claim constructive dismissal if they could show that their employer failed to intervene to prevent the bullying or harassment concerned."

The practice of picking on people with red hair is thought to be a particularly British trait. Though it can sound trivial to others, years of abuse at school and then also at work can leave the bullied person feeling extremely distressed.

Employers do have a duty of care towards employees, and the law says they should make sure that their workplaces are places where they are not subjected to harassment.

"A much better way [to deal with the problem] is for employers to ensure that the workplace culture is one of respect and equality so that bullying or harassment of any description, on any grounds, is simply not tolerated," said Barker.

"Employees and co-workers also have a responsibility to ensure that bullying of any description, even if on a minor scale, is stamped out. Telling a work colleague that their teasing of a colleague just isn't funny can go a long way to preventing harm being done in the first place," she said.

Copyright © 2007, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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