Worker subjected to ‘degrading’ racial abuse wins harassment and unfair dismissal claims

Company owner suggested cleaner – or his HR representative wife – should conduct disciplinary hearing

Worker subjected to ‘degrading’ racial abuse wins harassment and unfair dismissal claims

An employee who worked for a steel firm was subjected to racial and homophobic abuse by his employer that left him “terrified”, an employment tribunal (ET) has ruled. 

The Carlisle ET found that despite the “somewhat surprising” and “unusual” nature of the tribunal – given the claimant was a white, heterosexual South African – the behaviour of his employer still amounted to harassment related to race. The ET also rejected the notion that homophobic remarks were just “office banter”. 

Judge Hodgson said that Mr W Hoch, who worked as a buyer for Thor Atkinson Steel Fabrications in Cumbria from December 2014 until his resignation on 30 April 2018, was a victim of racial and homophobic comments, that the comments were not encouraged by Hoch, and that they were not a sign of a “good working relationship” as his employer had insisted. 

A claim of constructive unfair dismissal was also upheld as Hoch had no access to a fair grievance process, which resulted in him taking a lower-paid job elsewhere. 

Approximately a year after commencing employment at the firm, its owner Mr Atkinson began to address Hoch using racially offensive terms such as “foreign c***” and the ‘N word’, more often than using his name. This behaviour extended to the wider workforce: for example, on one occasion in August 2017, one of Hoch’s co-workers, Mr Hunter, posted a picture on social media app Snapchat of Hoch’s head superimposed onto the body of an emaciated black child. 

At the beginning of 2016, Atkinson began to use homophobic slurs, such as “gay c***”, to address Hoch, and told him to “get back to the Wendy house”, which led to him being regularly teased by other colleagues about his appearance. 

This persisted throughout 2017 and into 2018 when, in January, Hoch recorded an exchange between himself and Hunter, who addressed him with a string of racial and abusive slurs including  “f****** South African f****** p****”,” despite Hoch threatening to report Hunter.

In February, Hoch was offered a lower-paid role in a different company. Atkinson reacted to the change in Hoch’s demeanour as he considered leaving by asking: “What’s up with you, f****** c***, what you being moody again for? Having your period? And sulking you f****** foreigner. Everyone’s noticed, come on you f****** big baby what’s up with you now?”

In April 2018, Hoch resigned, citing that he frequently received abuse from Atkinson and found it “threatening, abusive, degrading, racist and a violation of my personal self”. He also said it had led him to seek medical attention.

Atkinson offered him a grievance hearing, which would be conducted by the company’s HR representative, who was also Atkinson’s wife. When Hoch declined the hearing as he believed it would not be carried out without bias, Mrs Atkinson – who had more than 20 years’ experience in HR – suggested a personal friend who worked as a cleaner at the company conduct the meeting, which Hoch also declined.

The ET said that Hoch’s rejection of both meetings was “entirely reasonable” and that the suggestion by Mrs Atkinson that either herself or a cleaner conduct the grievance procedure was “clearly wholly inappropriate”.

The tribunal heard that Mr Atkinson suggested there was evidence of a “good working relationship” and that Hoch willingly participated in “banter”, providing to the tribunal a number of texts, including messages where Hoch referred to himself as “the South African”. Hunter also produced three text messages which he felt indicated a friendly relationship. 

Mrs Atkinson claimed to have processed written complaints about Hoch’s change in demeanour from other employees, but produced no evidence to the ET, which questioned how someone with her HR experience could misplace paperwork.

The ET found Mrs Atkinson to be “totally lacking in any credibility” as she claimed to be unaware of any racist language. It cited a group chat – which included Mr Atkinson and Hoch – in which Mrs Atkinson told her husband “Seriously!!!!! You need to stop that!!!” after he used a racial slur towards Hoch.

Mrs Atkinson also alleged the extract of the text exchange was fabricated, but could produce no evidence to support what the ET called an “extreme contention”. 

The ET ruled in Hoch’s favour for harassment related to race and sexual orientation, alongside aggravated damages and personal injury.

It also upheld a claim of constructive dismissal as Hoch argued his workload – especially towards the end of his employment – was becoming “unrealistic and excessive”, forcing him to seek new employment. 

The ET ordered Thor Atkinson Steel Fabrications to pay £52,686 to Hoch.

Thor Atkinson Steel Fabrications has been contacted for comment. Hoch could not be reached for comment.