Employers have been advised to remind staff of their policies against race discrimination ahead of discussions about the football World Cup.
The warning follows an employment tribunal's decision that an employee suffered direct race discrimination following a discussion about who she would support in the 2006 World Cup tournament.
When Mrs Okerago, who worked for the drugs manufacturing firm Sanofi-Aventis Pharma, told an agency worker she would support her own country and not England in the competition, she was told to "go back to her own country".
John Read, an employment law editor at XpertHR, told Personnel Today: "With the World Cup starting in early June, employers should be aware that workers will discuss the tournament, which will naturally involve conversations about nationalities and possibly races.
"Employers cannot and should not, of course, seek to control or monitor those discussions, and the verbal abuse suffered by Mrs Okerago was totally disproportionate to the discussion taking place. Nonetheless, employers may consider it appropriate to gently remind employees that they should bear in mind the employer's equal opportunities policy when discussing the tournament with colleagues."
But in the case of Okerago v May & Baker trading as Sanofi-Aventis Pharma, an Employment Appeal Tribunal has now ruled that although the remarks were discriminatory, the original tribunal had misapplied the law, and the firm was not liable for the discrimination claim because the comment was made by an agency worker. An award for £2,500 compensation was set aside.
The warning comes after the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) warned nine in 10 firms had not yet developed a policy to manage employee absence during the month-long tournament, which begins on 11 June.
A survey of 100 HR directors, carried out by XpertHR, found 63% of organisations have already made provisions for staff to watch the South African World Cup games, while a further 10% said they would allow arrangements to be made on a local level.