Mr Tribe was employed by BT as a fibre optic jointer. He suffers from muscular dystrophy. Whilst on a job he received a ‘pocket dial’ phone call from his manager in which he heard a foul-mouthed rant relating to his ability to perform and complete tasks on a job.
Was Mr Tribe harassed as a result of the accidental phone call?
Tribe v British Telecommunications Plc (BT)
Mr Tribe was employed by BT as a fibre optic jointer. He suffers from muscular dystrophy and is disabled within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010.
Mr Tribe and his colleague Mr Hobson attended a job at a police station. At 4pm Mr Tribe telephoned his manager to say that they needed more time to complete the job as the desk sergeant was leaving and told them that nobody else could give them access to the compound after 4pm. Mr Tribe alleged that after he had spoken to his manager he received an accidental return phone call from him. His manager was speaking to a third person and Mr Tribe heard him call Mr Tribe a ‘bullshitter’ and that if he had rang the station he would have been able to gain access. He also said that had it been an ‘able-bodied’ team carrying out the job it would have been completed before 4pm. Mr Tribe then hung up, sent a photograph of the police station opening times to his manager and called him back because he was angry. His manager told him that he was sorry for what he had heard but if he pocket-dialled Mr Tribe again, he was to hang up immediately.
After this incident, there was a further incident with Mr Tribe’s new manager. During an informal conversation Mr Tribe explained his physical disability and how he had been badly treated by previous managers. Mr Tribe then explained the dynamics and role of Mr Hobson and their two man team. There was discussion about what duties Mr Tribe could carry out to which the new manager responded ‘you’re not a complete handbag then’.
Mr Tribe raised grievances about both incidents which were rejected. Mr Tribe did not appeal the grievance outcome as he had little faith in the willingness of BT to uphold grievances against managers. He was also reluctant to issue proceedings in the tribunal because he prioritised the maintenance of his employment as this helped his disability; the job kept him active. Mr Tribe only decided to go down the tribunal path after a culmination of a series of incidents which he believed related to his disability.
Mr Tribe brought claims for victimisation and harassment.
Employment Tribunal decision
Some of Mr Tribe’s claims were out of time, however, the Tribunal allowed him to continue with his claims as it accepted he prioritised his employment as it was difficult for him to find new employment as a disabled person. It took each incident in turn and concluded that the ‘pocket dial’ incident had violated Mr Tribe’s dignity and created a degrading or humiliating environment for him. He was therefore subject to harassment in this regard. However, turning to the ‘handbag’ comment, the Tribunal concluded that whilst the managers comments were inappropriate, Mr Tribe’s initial ‘light hearted’ reaction to the comment led the Tribunal to conclude that he understood the way in which the manager meant the comment and did not to create a humiliating or degrading environment for Mr Tribe and therefore this was not harassment. BT was ordered to pay Mr Tribe £8,131.31 compensation for harassment.
Comments related to a person’s disability or another protected characteristic can still amount to harassment, even if the person overhears the comments.
The test of harassment is satisfied if e.g. a manager makes a comment (unwanted conduct) about a protected characteristic which has the purpose or effect of violating an employee’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offence environment for the employee. A one off incident can amount to harassment and the victim does not need to have advised the perpetrator that the conduct is unwanted.
Employers should not only have proper policies and procedures advising employees of the standards of behaviour required at work and should also train all staff on their policies and procedures.
Baines Wilson can help you with drafting appropriate policies and procedures in relation to equal opportunities and dignity at work and provide management training that can be dovetailed to your organisation on matters such as these and a large variety of others.
If you have any queries, do not hesitate to contact the employment team on 01228 552600 or 01524 548494.