A Chinese NHS employee who was taunted by a colleague who made ‘Kung Fu’ noises has won more than £28,000 at an employment tribunal after bringing a race discrimination claim.
Mr Sheun works in the IT department at Northern General Hospital, part of Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust.
Recent race discrimination cases
He claimed that he was subjected to racial harassment by his colleague, systems engineer Mr C Ringrose, who often mimicked a “stereotypical” Chinese accent and repeated a “Kung Fu” noise similar to that of actor Bruce Lee in Chinese martial arts films between 2016 and 2018.
Mr Sheun made an informal complaint about the behaviour in 2016. Part of this complaint included the allegation that another colleague, also a systems engineer, Stephen Baldwin, had elongated the final vowel sound when talking about Tsing Tao beer, to mimic what he understood to be the Chinese way of pronouncing that word. Colleagues were told to be more cautious about the language they used and to be sensitive to others in the office.
Mr Baldwin’s behaviour continued into 2018, until Mr Sheun made a formal complaint and Mr Baldwin received a formal warning.
At a hearing before the Sheffield employment tribunal, Mr Sheun said he had suffered regular and distressing discriminatory treatment about his ethnicity while growing up, including some of the “Kung Fu” vocalisations that his colleague made.
The tribunal found that that “Chinese martial arts and the films that feature them are so closely associated with Chinese ethnicity and culture that any reference to those is likely to relate to the Chinese race”, so it was reasonable to conclude that the behaviour was linked to Mr Sheun’s race.
It noted there was no evidence to suggest that Mr Baldwin had made the comments or noises with the aim of targeting Mr Sheun and causing him distress, but it had unintentionally done so.
The judgment stated: “They appear to the tribunal to be efforts at misguided humour and appear in the view of the tribunal to be without malice … It is well established that harassment can happen unintentionally and so much so that it may even (for example, in the case of disability) happen where the harasser is unaware of the existence to the protected characteristic let alone the likely effect of their conduct on the claimant.”
The tribunal also noted that the NHS trust had given Mr Baldwin a formal warning, which inferred that the organisation agreed with the claimant that his behaviour had been discriminatory. However, the respondent attempted to argue that Mr Sheun had reacted oversensitively to the behaviour.
“We reject any submission that the claimant is ‘over sensitive’. His earlier experiences have sensitised him, to be sure, but they are all part of the circumstances of the case and part of the matrix of matters we may consider when considering the objective question of reasonableness. We take the view that, bearing in mind the fact of the claimant’s earlier complaint and the facts of the claimant’s earlier experiences, the claimant was reasonable in treating the incident as undermining his dignity,” the judgment said.
The tribunal awarded Mr Sheun £22,541.16 in compensation for injury to feelings, plus £5,509.87 for lost earnings while he was off sick; £630 for his loss of the opportunity to work weekend shifts while off sick; and £511.32 in interest.