Secretary who resigned after her boss said she would not hire someone who was black was unfairly dismissed, tribunal finds

Judge says racially charged actions of care home director ‘utterly undermined’ worker’s trust in her employer

A secretary was unfairly dismissed after her managing director told her she would not hire someone who was black during a phone conversation, an employment tribunal has ruled. 

The tribunal ruled Mrs C A Hobbs, who worked for Avon Care Homes from November 2015 until her resignation on 8 April 2019, was unfairly dismissed after she quit without notice following her managing director admitting she would not be hiring a candidate because of the colour of their skin.  

Judge Christa Christensen said the racially charged actions of Avon Care Homes’ managing director, Christina Bila, “utterly undermined” Hobbs’s ability to trust her employer, and ruled the serious nature of the unlawful recruitment practices Hobbs was being asked to administer meant she was not required to raise a grievance before resigning.

“The claimant could not tolerate continuing to be employed on the basis that she was being instructed in terms to be complicit in recruitment practices that there were unlawful by reference to the provisions in the Equality Act relating to race discrimination,” Christensen said.

As a secretary, one of Hobbs's responsibilities was to assist Julia Rea, Avon Care Homes’ regional manager, with recruiting. Hobbs’s role was to liaise with recruitment agents.

On 3 April, following a referral by one of these agents, Rea interviewed Paulette Mills, who the tribunal heard was black, for the position of home manager. The ET heard Rea was “very impressed” with Mills and considered her ideal for the role. Bila, who was also required to interview the candidate, spoke to Rea later that afternoon on the phone and said she would be available to meet Mills when she returned from a holiday on 8 April. 

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However, the following day during a phone call to the office, Bila discovered Mills was black and told Hobbs she was cross with Rea for not being clear about Mills’s ethnicity. As a result, Hobbs and Rea were concerned Bila would not offer Mills a second interview “because of her racial prejudice”.

While there was no formal job offer, negotiations between Rea and Mills had progressed to an understanding on salary, and the tribunal heard Bila’s approval was all that was required. 

A discussion took place between Rea and Hobbs about how best to convince Bila to hire Mills. As Rea knew she would be out of the office when Bila returned from holiday, she effectively prepared a script for Hobbs to read to Bila, the tribunal heard.

It heard Hobbs was told to tell Bila: “I know you think that your residents have in the past not liked being cared for by black people, and I know that you are reluctant to employ Paulette, and it has affected your decision, but I am really struggling with this decision.

“I know you are not racist, but this opinion by the residents is unfortunately influencing you, and it is making the employment process that I am using is [sic] getting the company in difficulties with the law regarding equality and racism.”

Immediately after receiving this ‘script’, Hobbs decided to research equality and discrimination laws in the UK and came to the conclusion that she risked being complicit in discriminatory practices if she continued with the recruitment process.

As expected, Bila called Hobbs on 8 April on her return from holiday. Hobbs followed the script from Rea but Bila said she did not want Mills “because she was black”.

The tribunal heard Hobbs told Bila that what she was proposing was illegal. But Bila conveyed to Hobbs that “to have black people in charge of a home like that is not going to work [...] I don’t have to explain to anyone”. Bila said she would interview Mills and then said: “I don’t like her; I am not having her as a manager.” 

From this conversation, Hobbs concluded she was being instructed to set up an interview for Mills even though Bila had already decided she would reject Mills on the basis of her race. Hobbs decided she could no longer remain employed by Avon Care Homes and was “deeply offended” at being asked to be complicit in “such discriminatory work practices”.

Hobbs left the office and emailed her resignation to Rea from home. 

In the email, Hobbs said: “[I am] unable to continue working for a company that has illegal working practices with regard to racial and colour prejudice held by the managing director. I am unwilling to lie to recruitment agencies as that makes me complicit with these illegal practices. Because of the issues regarding my reasons for having to leave, I am unable to work my notice as I believe this would be inappropriate knowing the office dynamic and your need to deal with the matters that I have brought up in this letter.”

After sending her resignation, Hobbs phoned Mills and told her if she was given a second interview with Bila she would not be offered the role because of her race. Hobbs told Mills she had resigned because of what had happened, and Mills decided she would not attend a second interview.

Bristol Employment Tribunal ruled Hobbs had been unfairly dismissed given the circumstances surrounding Avon Care Homes’s recruitment processes, and that she was entitled to terminate without notice by reason of her employer’s conduct. 

A case management hearing will be listed to address matters of remedy. Avon Care Homes has been contacted for comment. Hobbs could not be contacted for comment.