Crematorium worker wins discrimination claim after manager’s offensive comments about Muslims

24 Jun 2019 By Maggie Baska

Investigation gave no thought to issues of religious harassment, tribunal finds

A crematorium worker has been awarded £6,846 in compensation for religious discrimination and harassment after a colleague said white people “wouldn’t want to be buried next to a Muslim”.

Lehla Aboulossoud, who worked as an administrative officer at Eltham Crematorium in south-east London, lodged a complaint after a manager made a number of offensive remarks about Muslims.

The London South employment tribunal (ET) ruled that the subsequent investigation gave no thought to issues of religious harassment or discrimination, focusing solely on whether the offensive remarks were targetted at Aboulossoud, and failed to recognise “the fact of religious associative discrimination and harassment and the impact of this on the claimant”. 

While the ET decided the comments were not aimed at Aboulossoud but were “made generally”, they still met the criteria for harassment and discrimination.

The tribunal heard Aboulossoud is of mixed heritage, and that her late father and a number of her family are Muslim. She started work at Eltham Crematorium in September 2011. 

On 8 January 2016, a staff meeting was held and attended by Dawn Squires, parks and open spaces manager for the Royal Borough of Greenwich, which owned Eltham Crematorium. At this meeting Aboulossoud acted as spokesperson for the crematorium staff, and set out concerns that another facility was taking away business and income from the Eltham site.

The rival facility, Kemnal Park, had a large dedicated Islamic section in its cemetery.

The tribunal heard testimony from various witnesses that Squires – who was described as angry, “ranting”, and trying to persuade staff the other facility was not a threat – said words to the effect of: “Do they [the Kemnal Park management] really think that the residents of Bromley would want to be buried next to a Muslim? No offence to the Muslim community but that’s what the Muslims do, they move in and take over.”

Squires admitted to the tribunal she “may well have stated that white British people might well complain about loved ones being buried next to a Muslim”. 

Following this meeting, Aboulossoud spoke with her manager on 21 March about what actions she could take, as she was still distressed about the incident. Squires visited the crematorium a few days later and called Aboulossoud into an impromptu meeting to discuss what happened, where Aboulossoud said she felt Squires’ comments had been directed at her. 

Squires stated her comments had not been her personal opinion but that she was speaking from the point of view of the “true blue Tory” residents of Bromley. She added that Aboulossoud was a valued member of staff. 

After consulting with her union, Aboulossoud raised a grievance against Squires on 15 June. Mr Dalley, a council employee, was appointed to investigate the grievance. Dalley met with Aboulossoud on 22 June and also interviewed all those present at the meeting. 

Aboulossoud was told on 3 August that Dalley had partly upheld her grievance. Dalley found the comments had been made, however he did not mention religious harassment or discrimination. Dalley told the tribunal he had not upheld it in full because, while the comments were made, they were not aimed at Aboulossoud.

Dalley told Aboulossoud he would arrange a meeting for Squires to apologise, and Squires was subsequently referred to take a course on valuing equality and diversity in the workplace.

Aboulossoud appealed the grievance result on 10 August but was told on 21 November that her appeal was not upheld as the comments were not directed towards her. Following this, she took her case to the London South employment tribunal on 21 December.

The tribunal ruled she was the victim of religious discrimination and harassment by the council and Squires, and as such awarded Aboulossoud £6,846 for injury to feelings and interest. 

The ET added the only evidence of the council’s policies on equal opportunities, harassment and diversity was an equal opportunities policy a page and a half long. It found there was evidence that Squires had undergone some training but no evidence of its content.

Additionally, there was no evidence before the ET that the council provided either Squires or Dalley with “any adequate and accessible definition of or training about discrimination or harassment”.

Angela Brumpton, partner at Gunnercooke, said the case was a reminder that a one-off act can amount to harassment on the grounds of religion, and that investigations into such acts must be swift and without omissions. “It is vital that employers faced with allegations of discriminatory treatment don’t exacerbate matters further by failing to conduct the related grievance properly,” she said. 

Brumpton added that having a policy was not enough, and that employers also needed to show the policy had been implemented and that employees had been trained or made familiar with it.

Christine Grice, councillor and cabinet member for finance and resources at the Royal Borough of Greenwich, said the welfare of staff was of “paramount importance”, and all employees deserved to feel respected, included and valued at work.

“Following this case, the recommendations from the employment tribunal judgment have all been implemented,” Grice said. “We have reviewed our human resources support, and rolled out comprehensive training for all staff.”

Aboulossoud could not be reached for comment.

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