A disabled employee who overheard a foul-mouthed rant from his manager after he accidentally ‘pocket-dialled’ him has been awarded more than £8,000 after a tribunal found his employer guilty of harassment.
Leicester Employment Tribunal heard fibre optic joiner Paul Tribe was described as a “bullshitter” whose job would have been better performed by an “able-bodied” team when manager Wayne Read phoned him and failed to realise his conversation was being broadcast.
Employment Judge Evans ruled the phone call amounted to a “violation of his dignity” and had the effect of creating “a degrading or humiliating environment for him”.
On 26 May 2016, Tribe, who had worked for BT since 1988 and suffers from muscular dystrophy, telephoned operations manager Read to inform him that he and his partner had been unable to complete a job, as the site on which they were working closed at 4pm.
The tribunal was told that shortly after speaking with his manager, Tribe received the accidental call and overheard the derogatory statements, which were apparently being made to a third party. He placed the call on speakerphone so his partner could hear the outburst.
After sending Read a photograph of the compound opening times to prove his point, he called Read back. The manager advised him that if he was pocket-dialled by him in future he should hang up.
Tribe also told the tribunal that in January 2017, he held a further conversation with Clive Glenton – who had just become his manager – to explain that he had a physical disability and that he felt he had been badly treated by previous bosses. He outlined tasks he was and was not able to complete as a result of his condition.
Tribe said this led to an inappropriate comment from the manager: “When I explained to him my restrictions, his reply to me was ‘well you’re not a complete handbag then’… I found it a little bit wrong for a manager to come out with that to a person with a disability, but when I told my wife what he’d said she was actually appalled.”
The tribunal accepted the comments were “ill-judged” but dismissed the evidence as it had not been reported at the time. The claim of harassment in relation to this incident was dismissed.
The tribunal held that while Tribe’s claim was not presented within three months of most of the events he complained of, it was “understandable that he would prioritise maintaining the employment relationship over pursuing employment tribunal claims. The Tribunal notes that disabled people are at a substantial disadvantage when seeking new employment. His position was very different to that of an employee whose employment had terminated.”
Claims of victimisation and a breach of duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments were dismissed. BT was ordered to pay Tribe £8,131.31 compensation for harassment.
Paul Holcroft, associate director at Croner, said the judgment reiterated the broad band of conduct caught by the statutory definition of harassment: “An employer’s defence that a comment related to a protected characteristic was not directly communicated to the individual, who merely overheard this, will not be sufficient to avoid a claim of harassment.
“Even where a communication is ill-judged, the tribunal will take the individual’s reaction to the words into account when deciding whether harassment occurred. This does create a risk, however, that a well-intentioned or ill-judged statement may lead to a discrimination complaint.”
Holcroft added the case should serve as a reminder that comments relating to protected characteristics should not be made within the workplace.
“Regardless of whether the individual is present at the time or not, such a comment could give rise to a claim of harassment,” he said. “All manager communications, whether verbal or in writing, are best to steer clear of any derogatory or discriminatory language and focus on being constructive, supportive and business-focused.”
Olly Jones, employment partner at Simmons & Simmons added: “For all the efforts companies are making around diversity and inclusion, a judgment such as this underlines the work they still have to do to eradicate prejudice and unconscious bias from the workplace.”