A council worker who used the ‘N-word’ during training when asking the facilitator a “legitimate question” about racism was unfairly dismissed, a tribunal has found.
The tribunal ruled London Borough of Redbridge Council failed to recognise Mr Stevenson, who was working as an applications support officer at the time of his dismissal, had made “sincerest apologies” to the colleagues that overheard the remark.
The tribunal also found the council mistakenly held time that Stevenson had spent working in the HR department against him – failing to understand he held IT roles and did not have any experience as an HR practitioner.
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As a result, the tribunal found the council acted outside the band of reasonable responses when it dismissed Stevenson.
However, the tribunal said it would significantly reduce any award because of Stevenson’s culpability in his use of a racial slur.
Stevenson worked for Redbridge Council for more than 30 years until his dismissal on 27 July 2020. His most recent role was applications support officer, but he had also spent many years working in the HR department and had a clean disciplinary record.
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Stevenson attended an internal ‘Prevent’ training course to safeguard adults and children against radicalism on 11 February 2020. The attendees were told by the facilitator that it was a “safe space”.
While the session was about radicalisation, the tribunal heard that Stevenson raised the issue of racism and asked the facilitator about a specific incident he witnessed in 1985.
When he described the incident, Stevenson used the ‘N-word’ “in full” and apologised immediately after he had used the word. The tribunal heard that nobody in the session reprimanded him for using the word, but two attendees complained to a senior manager after the session.
Following an investigation, Stevenson was invited to a disciplinary hearing on 14 July 2020 with Ola Akinfe, head of asset management, who told the tribunal he found the use of the word “appalling”.
During the hearing, Stevenson said he had reflected on the language he used and said he “felt terrible”. He agreed that he should have used another word and could have got his message across without using the ‘N-word’ in full.
Stevenson also asked to address those who complained against him, as they were present in the hearing, in order to apologise, but was not permitted as per company policy.
He told Akinfe he thought he had attended three diversity and inclusion training courses and estimated the most recent one would have been in 2017, which Akinfe said he would check on. However, the tribunal found Akinfe did not check whether he had attended or what the content of the courses had been.
Akinfe concluded he had not been presented with any evidence that Stevenson had made any attempts to engage or show remorse to the victims, and Stevenson was dismissed by letter on 24 July 2020 without notice.
Stevenson appealed and attended a hearing on 23 October 2020 with the council’s staffing sub-committee. However, the committee confirmed his dismissal, holding that Stevenson “did not apologise to those who had been offended” and “showed no remorse for his actions”.
The committee also rejected Stevenson's assertion he did not have the opportunity to show remorse or regret to those who had attended the course, and noted as a contributing factor that he had worked in the HR department “for the majority of his career”.
However, the tribunal found that a “reasonable employer” would have recognised that Stevenson had offered his “sincerest apologies” both during his disciplinary hearing and at the training day, and showed “some level of remorse”.
As such, the council’s conclusion that Stevenson had not shown any remorse was not one that a “reasonable employer would have reached”, it said.
The tribunal also said the council’s misapprehension over Stevenson’s role within the HR department “counted against him”, finding that Stevenson had always worked in an IT support role, has no HR experience and has never worked in a HR advisor role.
It said a reasonable employer would have concluded that his 31 years of service with a clean disciplinary record did not warrant dismissal.
However, the tribunal said by his own account Stevenson knew the impact of the word he used, and that he could have described the incident and asked his question just as well without using the word.
As a result, Stevenson’s basic award and his compensatory award, to be determined at a later date, will be cut by 90 per cent each.
Commenting on the case, Paul Holcroft, managing director of Croner, said it was important employers fully understood the difference between misconduct and gross misconduct.
“An employer can dismiss in misconduct cases even if the reason does not amount to gross misconduct but is obliged to give notice and follow a procedure, including warnings, which is fair overall,” he said. “This is where the employer in this case arguably fell short”.
London Borough of Redbridge Council has been contacted for comment. Stevenson could not be reached.