Manager racially harassed caretaker via WhatsApp, tribunal rules

Employee faced ‘hostile environment’ after he was singled out at work and in team group chat

A worker for a London-based housing association was harassed and victimised by his manager through racially charged online messages, an employment tribunal has found.

A London employment tribunal (ET) ruled Khalid Krabou, who has worked as a caretaker for Tower Hamlets Homes (THH) since 1989, was racially harassed and victimised by his employer after his line manager singled him out for criticism and sent racially charged pictures through instant messaging platform WhatsApp.

The tribunal found the conduct of Krabou’s manager, Jimmy Quane, had created a “hostile working environment” and that it was “unsurprising that the claimant felt vulnerable within the team, having regard to the way that Mr Quane was treating him”.

The judgment went on to say THH had not provided adequate evidence to show the unwanted conduct by Quane was not related to Krabou’s race or religion.

However, Krabou’s claim was only accepted in relation to his treatment by Quane, with other claims of harassment and a claim of direct disrimination being dismissed. 

THH said the member of staff against which “the bulk of the allegations” were made had been dismissed.

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Krabou, who identified himself as a North African/Morrocan Muslim, worked as part of the support team providing caretaking services and maintenance to around 21,000 homes on behalf of the London borough of Tower Hamlets. Krabou was on a team of nine and had been managed by Quane, THH’s caretaking support team manager, since 2011. 

Krabou told the tribunal his team was “predominantly white” and all-male, which led to a culture of “casual racism and sexism” among some team members, especially in the WhatsApp group the team used.

On 27 April 2018, following a number of incidents, Krabou lodged a complaint of bullying and harassment in which he alleged Quane “set out to target him”.

In his complaint, he said Quane “singled him out for criticism” in a number of incidents. This included being called out over disagreements about the use of work and personal email accounts; for the way he reported the theft of a work van in December 2017; over an instance where he borrowed a tipper van without authorisation; for failing to implement occupational health recommendations; and for a warning about timekeeping.

This resulted in multiple disciplinary proceedings, and Krabou suggested he was being discriminated against because of his race and religion. 

At the time it was suggested by another manager that Krabou be reassigned to a new line manager, or that Quane be suspended; however, a decision was made not to suspend Quane “at this point”.

On 29 May 2018, Krabou was informed that his grievance would be investigated by THH’s head of finance, Adam Coates. Krabou attended investigatory meetings with Coates on 12 June and 11 July, in which Krabou said he had been singled out by Quane for various incidents. 

In a letter dated 14 September, Coates upheld two aspects of Krabou’s complaints – one where Quane had not followed HR procedure when issuing a warning, and a second where Quane had failed to follow the advice of occupational health.

But Coates did not make a finding of discrimination or harrasment, and said that while there were flaws in Quane’s approach he had “the best intent”.

Krabou appealed against the grievance outcome on or around 28 September 2018, and decided to disclose to his employer the content of a private WhatsApp group.

This group was initially started by Krabou’s deputy team leader in 2015 as a work-related messaging platform, but the tribunal heard that by 2016 it devolved into a “vehicle for personal messages, many of which consisted of highly offensive material, including images, videos and text of an explicitly racist, Islamophobic, sexist and pornographic character”. 

The tribunal heard Krabou brought various messages sent by Quane to the attention of the THH senior management team. One image, sent on 24 December 2016 by Quane, showed four Muslim schoolgirls wearing the burqa with the text “Khalid school photo he’s fourth from the right”.

In another incident on 4 August 2017, Krabou uploaded a picture of him and his son sitting on a beach, to which Quane responded with a racial slur. 

There were four additional racially charged images and photos posted on the WhatsApp group from November 2016 to June 2017, which were brought to the attention of management.

Once the manager conducting the appeal saw the images, he referred the appeal to an external investigator. However, the appeal was ultimately rejected by letter on 1 March 2019.

Krabou then brought claims of direct discrimination, harassment and victimisation to the ET on 6 December 2018, which found in favour of the claim relating to Quane only, dismissing a number of other claims.

Rebecca Ireland, partner at Gunnercooke, told People Management it was dangerous for employers to tolerate inappropriate banter or behaviour in messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, warning it was "playing with fire" over what individuals would and would not find tolerable.

"In this case, the manager was participating in and sending a lot of WhatsApp messages that were directed at and targeted towards the worker – not just sending a bit of something everyone might enjoy," Ireland said. "Employers should discourage this type of inappropriate behaviour by setting down policies and guidance around what is acceptable in WhatsApp and other messaging applications."

Ireland said employers could consider having a senior person within the business monitor and regulate such social media's usage to ensure the content remained part of a productive and safe work environment. 

A THH spokesperson said: “Although the tribunal found in THH’s favour in several areas, we are conscious that there are always lessons that can be learned, and we have used the experience as an opportunity to refresh our policies and approach to training. 

“With regard to the particular issues within the tribunal, we want to make it clear that the member of staff which the bulk of allegations were made against has been dismissed."

Krabou could not be reached for comment.