A receptionist has won her claim for race discrimination after colleagues asked her whether she’d touched an electrical socket ‘to make her hair like that’.
Donna Phillips, who worked for Ballymore Construction Services in London, said she had been on the receiving end of the remark twice.
She told the tribunal that she had also heard one colleague use the N-word seven times. As one of only two black employees at the company, she complained.
Phillips began work at Ballymore in March 2018. Six months into her new job, she emailed her managers to complain about racist remarks made by one colleague [Mr McStoley]. A month later she sent another email about offensive remarks made by another member of staff [Mr Zahid].
Employment Judge Khalil noted in his judgment that the comments made were “similar and remarked about what electrical sockets Miss Phillips had touched to make her hair like that”.
The comments were made when she had her hair untied and open.
An employee who had used the N-word was spoken to about the inappropriateness of the term and others were given verbal warnings about their behaviour.
Phillips felt her concerns were not being addressed properly and emailed managers, adding that she had been blamed for IT errors at the company and had been accused of being aggressive.
She was then invited to a grievance investigation meeting in September 2018. Other than the comments about her hair, which were found to be indirectly discriminatory, her other concerns were dismissed.
Following an operational review, Ballymore needed to reduce costs by 10% and was forced to place several positions in the company at risk, including Phillips’ role.
During her redundancy consultation, alternative roles for Phillips were discussed and she showed interest in a role as co-ordinator. A letter was sent to her requesting her CV and confirming her interest.
However, Phillips took several periods of absence in January 2019, some of which were deemed by the company to be unauthorised as she had not provided a fit note.
She was invited to a further consultation meeting in early February but soon after tendered her resignation citing discriminatory treatment.
In upholding her claim for race discrimination, Judge Khalil said: “The [electrical sockets] comment, even as a joke and in the context of Mr McStoley’s own hair, would not have been said to a white employee.
“The remark was made because Miss Phillips was black and wearing her afro hair out. For the same reasons, Mr Moiz Zahid’s comparable comment to that of Mr McStoley’s was also race discrimination.”
Use of the N-word by her colleague Ms Perez was unanimously considered inappropriate and offensive, although the judgment questioned whether the word had been used seven times, as had been described by the claimant.
The tribunal concluded that the comment was less favourable treatment because of her race compared with a hypothetical white employee.
A remedy hearing will decide on compensation in due course.
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