Postal worker discriminated against because of his ‘perceived religion’, tribunal rules

Row over use of prayer room for meetings led to racial harassment, victimisation and discrimination claims

A postal worker was a victim of racial harassment, victimisation and discrimination even though comments made towards him were not directed towards his own religion, an employment tribunal (ET) has ruled. 

The Cardiff ET ruled Mr Shunmugaraja was directly discriminated against by his employer, Royal Mail, after a colleague, who mistakenly believed Shunmugaraja to be a Muslim, made discriminatory comments during the culmination of a row over the use of a prayer room for meetings.

The ET also ruled Shunmugaraja faced unwanted conduct related to his race and was victimised because he had carried out a protected act. 

Shunmugaraja, who was employed by Royal Mail Group from August 2007 until his employment was terminated in January 2018, was a work area manager at the company’s Cardiff mail centre. 

The tribunal heard Shunmugaraja – who described himself as being a Hindu of British-Indian origin – was on the first tier of management within the mail centre. He was responsible for managing a number of employees including two postal workers, Mr Day and Mr Brown.

The ET heard there was evidence that Shunmugaraja had historically found it difficult to manage Brown, and had raised this with other managers. By June 2017, it was noted that his relationship with Brown was “not a good one”, and shortly afterwards matters came to a head when Brown refused to undertake work he had been instructed to carry out. 

On 21 June, a meeting was called to “clear the air” between Shunmugaraja and Brown, chaired by Shunmugaraja’s manager Mr John. The tribunal heard that during this meeting, Brown called Shunmugaraja a “sly dog”, which led to Shunmugaraja quitting the meeting offended, as he perceived the comment to be related to his race.

Brown told the tribunal he had made the remark because Shunmugaraja had raised a private issue during the meeting in an attempt, he felt, to make him look bad in front of John. 

Shunmugaraja was also involved in a separate incident around the use of the mail centre’s ‘quiet room’.

As part of his role, Shunmugaraja was required to hold weekly half-hour meetings with his team. To assist a team member with a hearing impairment, Shunmugaraja decided to hold these meetings in the quiet room and book exchange, which was also used for prayer, contemplation and reading.

Witnesses at the tribunal agreed there was a designated prayer room on a different floor which was used by Muslim employees. 

Day told the tribunal he used the quiet room for prayer, and he disagreed with Shunmugaraja using the room for meetings. On 3 August 2017, the room was used for a meeting. The tribunal heard Day was “aggressive and shouting” at Shunmugaraja. He questioned why the meeting was taking place in the room and asked Shunmugaraja to go outside with him to discuss it. 

Shunmugaraja asked a colleague to also join them outside as a witness, and Day responded: “What for? I am not going to kill you”.

The discussion continued outside the quiet room, and Shunmugaraja’s friend, who is a Muslim, attended as a witness. Shunmugaraja told the tribunal Day continued to adopt an aggressive tone and demanded they use the Muslim prayer room for the meeting. 

Shunmugaraja wrote to Royal Mail’s HR department on 14 September alleging he was being harassed and bullied on account of his race, referring to the incidents on 21 June and 3 August. In the letter, Shunmugaraja requested an external investigation as he was concerned the Cardiff mail centre’s resident investigator would not be impartial – which Royal Mail accepted made the letter a protected act.

But on 25 October, Royal Mail’s employee relations case management team wrote to Shunmugaraja explaining it did not normally look into bullying and harassment complaints from managers against their team, and said the issues should be dealt with by a manager. 

Following this, on 9 November, Shunmugaraja presented employment tribunal claims alleging discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, disability and sex as well as asserting he had been subjected to a detriment following a protected disclosure. 

Separately, Royal Mail appointed another manager at the Cardiff mail centre, Mr Newton, to investigate Shunmugaraja’s bullying and harassment complaints. Shunmugaraja met with Newton on 21 November, where he objected to Newton conducting the investigation as he maintained any manager from within the centre would not be impartial. 

On 26 November, Shunmugaraja became unwell with neck pain while at work and went off on sick leave. The tribunal heard he did not return to work prior to his dismissal – unrelated to the grievance – on 23 January 2018. 

On 17 January, Newton wrote to Day, Brown and Shunmugaraja confirming the allegations had been fully investigated and “appropriate actions have been taken”. 

However, the Cardiff ET ruled Shunmugaraja had been directly discriminated against because of his perceived religion, harassed by unwanted race-related conduct and victimised because he had carried out a protected act. 

In her judgment, Judge Laura Howden-Evans said the context for Day's statements was important. She said Day was "wound up and upset that [Shunmugaraja] wanted to use the quiet room, which Day personally used for prayers", and the comment was one he would not have made to someone of the same religion as himself. 

"We are satisfied that in the heat of the moment and in those words he was blurring together [Shunmugaraja’s] religion and [his] friend’s religion and was trying to say 'you respect the Muslim religion – why not respect mine?'" Howden-Evans said.

"However, Day did not express it like this or in this manner. Instead, he said caustically and aggressively 'Let’s go use the [Muslim] prayer room'."

Elaine Huttley, senior associate at Irwin Mitchell, said it was significant that, even though the judge understood the argument Day was attempting to make, the ET still found it discriminatory because of the way it was made.

"This is an important lesson for employers, as the majority of discrimination isn't overt, and it's not enough to just have a policy that says you are an equal opportunity employer who won't tolerate discrimination," Huttley said.

"You need to properly and regularly train employees so they are able understand what discrimination is and where the line is to hopefully mitigate future tribunal claims."

Neither Royal Mail nor Shunmugaraja could be reached for comment.