Is there a problem with having nicknames in the workplace?
There can be if a nickname is related to a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, as a recent Employment Tribunal (ET) case demonstrates.
Dove v Brown & Newirth Ltd
Mr Dove was a Sales Representative for Brown & Newirth Ltd (“the Respondent”), a jewellery manufacturer, which employed approximately 43 people. He commenced employment with the Respondent in November 1990.
In 2011, the Respondent appointed Mr Ball as Sales Director and Mr Thomas as a sales person. Mr Thomas was in his early 30s and later became Head of Sales. Only Mr Dove on the sales side of the business was over the age of 50.
At some point, Mr Thomas began using the nickname ”Gramps” for Mr Dove. He used it in emails and verbally when others were present. This went on for several years.
A number of customers were alleged to have raised complaints in relation to Mr Dove between 2011 and 2012. Mr Dove wasn’t told about these until December 2013 when he was invited to a meeting and told that his position had been identified as “underperforming”. In March 2015 the decision was taken by Mr Ball to transfer 5 of Mr Dove’s customer accounts to Mr Thomas, reducing Mr Dove’s income generation for the Respondent.
Following a number of meetings about Mr Dove’s performance and customer complaints, Mr Dove received notice by email on 1 April 2015 that his employment was to terminate on the grounds of “some other substantial reason”. Mr Dove unsuccessfully appealed the decision to dismiss him and took his case to the ET where he claimed age discrimination in relation to the nickname “Gramps” and in relation to the dismissal itself.
The Employment Tribunal (ET)
The ET found that Mr Dove was discriminated against because of his age both in relation to being called “Gramps” and by his dismissal. Mr Dove’s accounts had been transferred to Mr Thomas – a much younger colleague – which left insufficient income to be generated by Mr Dove leading to the termination of his employment.
The ET found that a number of comments had been made by customers including that Mr Dove was “too long in the tooth” which the ET found was without question, a reference to his age. The ET also found a number of other phrases that had been used by some customers which appeared to be a reference to Mr Dove’s age. These included calling Mr Dove “old fashioned” and “traditional”. Whilst these comments were not made by the Respondent, the ET found that the Respondent acted on them when dismissing and could not provide justification for doing so.
Mr Dove maintained that he found the term “Gramps” to be hurtful and disrespectful while the Respondent told the ET that it was a term of affection and that it was not intended to be offensive. The ET accepted that the term was not meant to cause offence but accepted that it was hurtful and disrespectful, particularly when used over a prolonged period of time. It was therefore discriminatory.
Mr Dove’s claims for age discrimination and unfair dismissal were successful.
Nicknames are common amongst colleagues and will often be thought of as terms of endearment/banter between colleagues; however, employers should be vigilant as to whether nicknames are crossing the line. In this case, the ET accepted that the repeated use of the term “Gramps” was not meant to be offensive but was nevertheless discriminatory.
The ET specifically referred to the banter which existed in the Respondent’s business but said that trying to categorise the term “Gramps” as banter didn’t assist the Respondent’s defence.
If you have any queries relating to age discrimination or dealing with an ageing workforce, please contact Joanne Holborn, Tom Scaife or Caroline Rayner on 01228 552600 or 01524 548494.