“Great big girl’s blouse!” or “a girly swot”. Harmless insults; a bit of banter; or perhaps an example of sexist language? Deborah Haynes, a journalist with Sky News, certainly took the view that these remarks were sexist in nature – even though men were the targets (see the link below).
The first of these remarks was uttered allegedly by Prime Minister Boris Johnson MP in the House of Commons last week and directed towards the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn MP. The second remark was in a memo written by the Prime Minister in which he was critical of David Cameron (one of his predecessors).
Mr Johnson is well known for his colourful language in both print and in his speeches, but he was called out last week in the House of Commons by the Labour MP, Tammanjeet Singh Dhesi who accused him in very blunt terms of making racist remarks about Muslim women who chose to wear the Islamic form of dress known as the burka as an outward sign of their religious beliefs and cultural background.
Mr Tammanjeet drew on his own experiences as a Sikh and the kinds of derogatory remarks that he had to endure. His speech was received very warmly on the Opposition benches of the House of Commons.
On the other hand, Mr Johnson attempted a defence of his language by saying that he had merely spoken up in favour of the good old fashioned liberal value of freedom of speech. It was not an entirely convincing performance from the Prime Minister and far from his finest hour at the despatch box.
The Equality Act 2010 recognises various forms of prohibited conduct such as direct discrimination (Section 13) and harassment (Section 26). Sexist, sectarian and homophobic remarks may well be taken as examples of direct discrimination. A sustained campaign of bullying to which an individual (with a particular protected characteristic) is subjected may amount to harassment.
It will be sensible for employers particularly to spell out to employees what is acceptable (and what is not) in terms of the kinds of language or behaviour in the work-place. If employers do nothing to check discriminatory remarks such as racist or sexist insults, there is a real danger that they could be held vicariously liable.
Had Mr Johnson been a mere mortal, some of his remarks may have come back to haunt him. Employers are entitled to take disciplinary action against those employees who have committed acts of discrimination. After all, they are merely protecting their position by not leaving themselves open to the threat of legal action by the victims.
From the employee’s perspective, engaging in offensive language could give the employer the right to treat this type of behaviour as gross misconduct. It should be recalled that, in terms of Section 98 of the Employment Rights Act 1998, misconduct committed by an employee can be punished by dismissal and such a termination of the employment contract may be entirely reasonable in the circumstances.
In short, no one should have to work in a place where there is a hostile, degrading or intimidating environment. Racist or sexist remarks can be highly suggestive of such a working environment if permitted to go unchecked and unchallenged. Maybe in future the Prime Minister would do well to mind his language.
Links to articles about the Prime Minister’s colourful turn of phrase can be found below:
Regular readers of this Blog will be aware that a number of my previously published articles have commented on individuals being dismissed from employment because they posted offensive or ill advised comments on social media platforms.
Such dismissals can be potentially fair grounds for termination of the contract of employment because the employer will able to claim that the employee’s behaviour (or misconduct) has caused reputational damage.
Section 98 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 makes it very clear that that acts of misconduct committed by the employee can constitute fair grounds for dismissal.
An interesting case which was reported today is McAlpine v Sodexo Justice Services (Sodexo Ltd) ET Case 4121933/18 where McAlpine, a prison officer employed at Her Majesty’s Prison Addiewell, lost his claim for unfair dismissal. On the facts, the Edinburgh Employment Tribunal held that Sodexo, the employer, was justified in dismissing McAlpine for posting offensive comments about Muslims (amongst other things) on Facebook while he was off duty.
It was not a competent defence put forward by McAlpine that some of the remarks which he posted were not his own, but rather those of the far right activist and campaigner, Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon).
Sodexo had a clear social media policy for its employees and the relevant sections can be found below:
“6.1You must avoid making any social media communications that could damage our business interests or reputation, even indirectly…
6.2You must not use social media to defame or disparage us, our employees or any third party; to harass, bully or unlawfully discriminate against employees or third parties; to make false or misleading statements; or to impersonate colleagues or third parties”.
In a section entitled Miscellaneous Rules, individuals were informed about the following conditions governing their employment with Sodexo:
“Employees must be honest at all times, in connect with their employment and must not breach the trust and confidence that is provided to them by the Company or Client. … Employees must not engage in, condone or encourage any behavior that could be regarded as harassment, bullying, victimisation or discrimination”.
Significantly, Sodexo had also stated that a “… breach of any of these rules would be considered gross misconduct”.
The Employment Tribunal was satisfied that in deciding to dismiss McAlpine for misconduct, the employer had followed its disciplinary procedure correctly and the ultimate sanction of termination of his employment was within the band of reasonable responses.
It is worth noting that the employer’s disciplinary procedures were fully in accordance with the current ACAS Code of Practice.
In these circumstances, it can hardly be surprising that McAlpine lost his case.
A link to the Employment Tribunal’s judgement can be found below:
According to a study just published by the Young Women’s Trust, it would appear that, in 2019, pregnancy discrimination in employment is more common than you might have thought.
The figures seem to show that 10% of those employers who were questioned would be very hesitant to hire a female candidate because of fears that she may decide to have a child in the near to long term future. Male bosses were much more likely to discriminate against female employees in this manner.
Section 18 of the Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal for employers to treat a woman less favourably in relation to pregnancy and maternity. Thankfully, there is no longer a requirement for a women to identify a male comparator in cases of alleged pregnancy and maternity discrimination (Section 17 of the Act deals with discrimination in non-work cases).
The Equality Act was particularly significant for women. Probably, for the first time in UK anti-discrimination law, less favourable treatment in relation to the issues of maternity and pregnancy would be dealt with in a more comprehensive and integrated fashion. Under the older equality laws, such as the now defunct Sex Discrimination Act 1975, women could not always be confident that they would receive protection under the law in connection with these important issues. Regrettably, repeated failures by the UK Parliament in this area meant that the intervention of the European Union had to be called upon when domestic law was found to be inadequate.
Ultimately the Court of Justice of the European Union would improve the legal situation for pregnant women (see Dekker v Stichting Vormingscentrum voor Jonge Volwassen Plus  IRLR 27, a case which originated in the Netherlands).
In Dekker, the Court of Justice stated unequivocally that it is always direct discrimination to refuse to offer employment to a woman for reason of her pregnancy. The Court also made it clear that a pregnant woman does not have to compare herself to that of a male co-worker/employee.
The provisions of Section 18 of the Equality Act implement the European Union’s Equal Treatment Directive (2002/73) in relation to maternity and pregnancy.
The Directive contained far stronger rules expressly forbidding discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy and maternity leave. This should mean that pregnant women now receive much stronger legal protection in employment. Pregnant employees must, however, prove that the less favourable treatment suffered by them was by reason of their pregnancy.
An employer will also commit an act of direct sex discrimination if a female employee is dismissed by reason of her pregnancy (see O’Neill v Governors of St Thomas More  IRLR 27). The dismissal can also be challenged on the grounds that it is automatically unfair in terms of Section 99 of the Employment Rights Act 1996.
Yet, despite all this legal protection, we still hear stories about the prevalence of pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the work-place. The one bright spot in the story is that the number of employers who stated that they would be reluctant to hire a female employee due to pregnancy concerns had actually decreased. That, at least, is a small crumb of comfort, but still not much to be overjoyed about.
One of the consistent themes of my blog has concerned an individual’s employment status in the work-place – or the very real difficulties associated with the lack of such status.
Section 230(1) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 defines who is an “employee” in the following terms:
“… an individual who has entered into or works under (or, where the employment has ceased, worked under) a contract of employment.”
As I have stated on more than one occasion, those who have a contract of service rather than a contract for services tend to be in a much stronger position legally speaking when it comes to a range of employment rights such as:
Paternity and maternity pay/leave
Statutory adoption pay/leave
Consultation rights in redundancy and TUPE situations
Entitlement to redundancy payments
Entitlement to sick pay
Minimum notice periods
Protection against unfair dismissal
The above are just some of the rights that people with employment status potentially can acquire depending on their length (or continuity) of service with their employer.
Those individuals with more insecure working patterns (e.g zero hours and/or casual workers) will almost never be in a situation to acquire such rights because it is almost always impossible for them to build up the necessary period of continuous service with the organisations to which they provide services. Typically, many of these workers are part of what has become known as the “gig economy” where the feature of employment contracts known as mutuality of obligation is absent.
Admittedly, the UK Government has attempted to begin to address the disadvantages facing “gig economy” workers by setting up the Taylor Review (which published its findings in July 2017). The final report made 53 recommendations concerning modern, employment practices:
The desire to extend workers’ rights seems to be something of a trend as, in April 2019, the European Union also ratified a new Directive with the working title Transparent and predictable working conditions in the European Union. This Directive (for the remaining EU 27 member states) will certainly give casual workers greater legal rights, but given the current uncertainty over the UK’s Brexit position, it remains to be seen if this measure will ever be implemented in this country (for more information, see my blog entitled “The gig economy” which was published on 19 April 2019).
One of the most significant new rights that the UK Government is proposing to extend to non-employees is the right to sick pay from day 1 of their service. It is calculated that this reform (if implemented) will benefit some 2 million workers.
A link to how the story was reported by The Independent can be found below:
A story which caught my eye over the last few days comes from the fair Canadian City of Toronto and involves misconduct dismissals. For a change, the dismissals do not involve social media misuse, but rather good old fashioned fraud.
150 members of staff working at a Toronto hospital were sacked for involvement in a sophisticated prescription fraud which was reportedly in the region of £3 million over an 8 year period. Defrauding your employer is, of course, an extremely serious breach of trust which materially undermines the contract of employment.
Interestingly, at this point, the Police in Toronto have not charged any individual with the crime of fraud – yet – but clearly the employer feels that it has sufficient grounds to go ahead with the dismissals.
I often to say to students that the employer merely has to have a reasonable suspicion that the employee has committed an act of misconduct. There is no need for the employer to demonstrate that the allegation(s) of misconduct meets the criminal standard of proof.
A link to the story on the Sky News website can be found below:
Had this story occurred in the UK, we would be talking about the matter in the context of Section 98(4) of the Employment Rights Act 1996. If employers can show that the reason for the dismissal of employees is justified i.e. on the grounds of misconduct (fraud), it will be a fair dismissal. As a point of good disciplinary policy, of course, employers should always follow the proper procedures when deciding to dismiss employees on the grounds of dismissal.
An issue which many employers will have to deal with is that of long-term sickness and/or frequent absences of certain employees.
In terms of Section 98(2) of the Employment Rights Act 1996, it is open to employers to argue that a dismissal was fair when they terminated the employment relationship by reason of an individual’s sickness absences. The employer would justify such a dismissal on grounds of capability (meaning “in relation to an employee, means his capability assessed by reference to skill, aptitude, health or any other physical or mental quality”).
This is subject, however, to the requirements laid down in Section 98(4) of the Act as to whether the employer has acted reasonably or unreasonably and also having regard to the “equity and substantial merits of the case”.
I also stress to students and to members of the wider public, that an employer does not have a blank cheque (or an automatic right) to dismiss an employee on the basis of sickness absences. Many employers will rightly argue that they have a business to run and they must monitor sickness absence amongst employees.
A particularly problematic issue is the use by many employers of sickness absence trigger points. This is where employers designate a set number of days (usually within a 12 month period) and affected employees may find themselves being summoned to a meeting which, in reality, is a thinly disguised disciplinary action which could ultimately lead to dismissal on capability grounds.
The problem here for employers is that the use of such trigger points can be entirely arbitrary in nature. In other words, they are blunt instrument which take little or no account of individual personal circumstances.
What if the employee in question has a disability in terms of Section 6 of the Equality Act 2010? In such cases, employers would be well advised to tread extremely carefully when dealing with members of the workforce who have (or might have) the protected characteristic of disability. Additionally, a female employee who is pregnant (and is suffering from short term ill health e.g. morning sickness) may fall foul of the trigger point. Again, caution should be exercised here because a pregnant employee will be entitled to the protection of Section 18 of the Equality Act 2010.
Let’s also discuss employees who are undergoing gender reassignment and, as this involves a prolonged medical process, it may be the case that this will involve a significant amount of absences from work for the person undergoing this process. Section 16 of the Equality Act 2010 makes it very clear that an employer who treats such an individual less favourably by, perhaps, subjecting them to disciplinary action on account of these absences will be acting unlawfully.Let’s also discuss employees who are undergoing gender reassignment.
When applying policies (practices or criteria) to the workforce, employers will have to be very much aware of straying into the perilous territory of the prohibited conduct known as indirect discrimination (Section 19: Equality Act 2010).
The Equality and Human Rights Commission provides guidance on
what constitutes indirect discrimination in its Statutory Code of Practice
An employer has a ‘no headwear’ policy for its
staff. Unless this policy can be objectively justified, this will be indirect
discrimination against Sikh men who wear the turban, Muslim women who wear a
headscarf and observant Jewish men who wear a skullcap as manifestations of
Requiring a UK-based qualification, when equivalent qualifications obtained abroad would also meet the requirement for that particular level of knowledge or skill, may lead to indirect discrimination because of race, if the requirement cannot be objectively justified.
The concept of indirect discrimination in Section 19 of the Equality Act applies to all of the protected characteristics with the exception of pregnancy and maternity (which are specifically addressed elsewhere in the Act (Sections 17 and 18)).
A gung ho or insensitive approach by the employer may be very costly in the longer term as regards dealing with sickness absences (especially as an injury to feelings element could be part of an Employment Tribunal award).
A disability, for example, will affect not only the individual’s ability to perform her job, but also her ability to perform normal day-to-day activities. If this is the case, the employer will have a duty to make reasonable adjustments, in terms of Section 20 of the Equality Act 2010 to the employee’s working conditions, in order to aid her return to work.
A failure to consider reasonable adjustments or to dismiss out of hand certain adjustments may constitute disability discrimination in terms of the Act.
Furthermore, it may be extremely ill advised for employers to place employees with disabilities on some sort of attendance monitor system. This could be an example of harassment (Section 28: Equality Act) and, if the employee in question was eventually dismissed, it may represent a breach of Section 15 of the Act i.e. discrimination arising from disability.
Section 15 is an area where many employers may be caught out and, consequently, they may treat a disabled person less favourably. The issue often arises when employers monitor attendance and time-keeping of employees. It may be the case that disabled employees face greater difficulty when it comes to maintaining an acceptable level of attendance and time-keeping and are thus placed at a disadvantage in comparison with their non-disabled colleagues.
Typically, employers will impose sanctions on all employees who do not meet attendance and time-keeping targets and they will doubtless argue that the issue disability has nothing to do with the way in which they treated an individual.
An example from the Equality and
Human Rights Commission’s Statutory Code on Employment makes it very clear the
dangers of such a blanket approach being taken by employers (which could leave
them open to legal action under Section 15):
A disabled worker periodically requires a limited amount of time off work to attend medical appointments related to the disability. The employer has an attendance management policy which results in potential warnings and ultimately dismissal if the worker’s absence exceeds 20 days in any 12-month period. A combination of the worker’s time off for disability-related medical appointments and general time off for sickness results in the worker consistently exceeding the 20 day limit by a few days. The worker receives a series of warnings and is eventually dismissed. This is likely to amount to disability discrimination.
Discrimination arising as a consequence of disability
Some of the pitfalls which employers face when dealing with employees who are disabled and who have accumulated a number of sickness absences which may trigger the organisation’s intervention policy was demonstrated in a case from 2018.
O’Connor, a disabled employee, was disciplined by DL Insurance because she had accumulated 60 days sickness absence during a 12 month period (she had been given a final written warning). Her employer had fallen foul of Section 15 of the Equality Act 2010 because both the Employment Tribunal and the Employment Appeal Tribunal were of the view that disciplinary action to deal with her level of sickness was not a proportionate response given that she was a disabled person within the meaning of the Act. Her employer was aware (and had accepted previously) that O’Connor was a disabled person. Reasonable adjustments (principally flexible arrangements) had been put in place by the employer as per their duty under the Act.
Significantly, the employer had failed to involve an independent occupational health service in the matter before it made the decision to discipline O’Connor AND the manager charged with carrying out disciplinary action had not bothered to obtain a full grasp of the facts of the situation i.e. by going to discuss how what impact the absences were having on O’Connor’s colleagues. In particular, the failure by the employer to involve occupational health services in O’Connor’s case was a breach of the company’s own procedures.
In the employer’s defence, however, the Employment Appeal Tribunal did note that O’Connor had been treated sympathetically in the past and that more latitude had been given to her personally in relation to the number of sickness absences she had accrued. This was not enough and by placing O’Connor under disciplinary sanctions, the employer had subjected her to unlawful. less favourable treatment in that she would not receive contractual sick pay if she was absent from work in the future.
The Employment Appeal Tribunal placed particular emphasis on the fact that the employer had failed to explain how a written warning (with all the implications for O’Connor) would actually lead to an improvement in her attendance at work. It was noted that the employer accepted that O’Connor’s absences were genuine and unavoidable and were caused by her disability.
Dealing with employee sickness absence (whether of a short or long term nature) can be extremely problematic for employers. The blunt instrument approach where arbitrary trigger points are used to monitor and deal with sickness absence can store up problems for employers over the distance. Quite simply, such policies, criteria or practices (PCPs) may have a disproportionately, adverse effect on certain groups of people within the workforce e.g. individuals with disabilities. There is a very real danger for employees that they end up breaching provisions of the Equality Act 2010 and their argument that a capability dismissal was fair will fall foul on deaf ears at any subsequent Employment Tribunal hearing. Proceed with caution might be the best advice when dealing with employees who have poor sickness records.
Over the last few months, several of my blog entries have examined the impact of conduct or behaviour of employees which occur outside working hours. The focus of these blogs has largely centred upon social media use (or misuse if you prefer) by employees and the likely consequences of reputational damage which the employer might suffer.
The overwhelming conclusion that visitors to this site should now have is that I take the view that what employees do in their private lives can have a significant impact on work-place relations. Yes, primarily we do have rights to privacy, expression and association as enshrined in Articles 8, 10 and 11 respectively of the European Convention on Human Rights (amongst other things), but does this does not give us a blank cheque or free pass to behave badly or engage in downright dubious activities outside working hours. In other words, our Convention rights are not absolute.
I decided to write this recent blog entry on the back of a story which appeared in The Independent last month in conjunction with the lead up to the European Parliamentary elections held in Germany on 26 May 2019. It was reported that a German national – Dr Gunnar Beck – was a candidate for a far right political party in Germany called the AfD (the Alternative for Germany).
Dr Beck is currently employed as a law lecturer at SOAS, University of London and many of his colleagues and the students were outraged when they learned that he was running as an AfD candidate for one of Germany’s seats in the European Parliament. There were calls for Dr Beck to be dismissed from his post at SOAS.
As it happened, Dr Beck was one of 10 German MEPs elected for the AfD Party.
This story is a very good example of issues such as freedom of speech versus the employer’s duty to prevent discrimination and intolerance in the work-place.
What should employers do if they stand accused of being complicit in the spread of extremist views or beliefs by one of their employees? It can be a very difficult call to make.
A link to the story about Dr Beck as reported by The Independent can be found below:
Section 98(4) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 gives the right to dismiss employees (quite fairly) for misconduct – whether in the work-place or outside.
Furthermore, we live in times where political extremism of all shapes is much more prevalent. Again, the Employment Rights Act 1996 gives employers – primarily agents of the State e.g. the Police and the intelligence services (and other sensitive posts) – the right to dismiss employees on national security grounds (see Home Office v Tariq and KianivThe Secretary of State for the Home Department ). Such a dismissal – even where the evidence against the employee in question might be fairly tenuous – would still constitute an automatically fair dismissal.
Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010 does protect an individual’s philosophical beliefs, but this does not mean that all sorts of extremist views will necessarily be tolerated (or should be tolerated) by employers.
In Redfearn v Serco t/a West Yorkshire Transport Services (2005) the employer dismissed Mr Redfearn on health and safety grounds because of his membership of the racist British National Party (BNP). Redfearn’s political affiliations might lead to violence arising in the workplace.
This was not the last word on the matter and Redfearn took his claim to the European Court of Human Rights on the basis that the then United Kingdom equality laws did not provide sufficient protection to individuals like him who suffered discrimination on grounds of their philosophical (political) beliefs.
In Redfearnv UK  the European Court of Human Rights stated that Redfearn had been dismissed on account of his membership of the British National Party and this was an example of unlawful discrimination. This decision effectively ensured that the protected characteristic of a person’s philosophical beliefs (now contained in the Equality Act 2010) is capable of including political beliefs.
In Grainger plc v Nicholson (2009), the Central London Employment Tribunal stated that individuals seeking the protection of the law [now contained in Section 10 of the Equality Act] must prove that the belief was “a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour”.
A belief which demonstrates “a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance” and this belief is ultimately “worthy of respect in a democratic society, [that it] be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others”.
This would seem to rule out protection for extremist beliefs, but as Redfearn v UK  clearly established employers will have to tread carefully. Essentially, the upshot of Redfearn is that employees are entitled to hold views which a large group within society may well find abhorrent and objectionable, but nonetheless such views fall within the protected characteristic of philosophical beliefs. Turning now to the employee holding such views or beliefs, the European Court of Human Rights made it very clear that such individuals did not have a right to act on these beliefs. So, for a person such as Mr Redfearn, he undoubtedly espoused racist beliefs by virtue of his BNP membership, but critically he had never acted upon these during his employment by, for example, subjecting a person from an ethnic minority group to unlawful, less favourable treatment.
In 2018, Councillor Christopher McEleny of the Scottish National Party took legal action against his former employer, the UK Ministry of Defence for alleged discrimination and constructive dismissal by reason of his political beliefs. An Employment Tribunal Judge, Frances Eccles ruled that McEleny’s beliefs in Scottish independence should be treated as a philosophical belief in terms of Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010.
Whether McEleny ultimately wins his Employment Tribunal claim on what exactly motivated his ex-employer to act in the way that it did towards him remains to be seen. It is a decision or outcome in which many people are undoubtedly interested.