Ms Abdi worked as an Operations Clerk for Deltec International Courier. Ms Abdi is a black woman of Somali origin and wears a hijab. During her employment, Ms Abdi got into a heated discussion with some of her colleagues about white privilege, crime and race. Soon after this argument, Ms Abdi used a colleagues’ details to log in to her computer for work, where she discovered a WhatsApp group that she was not a part of which included several offensive comments about Ms Abdi and another female colleague.
Was Ms Abdi subjected to harassment?
Ms Abdi v Deltec International Courier
Ms Abdi worked as an Operations Clerk for Deltec International Courier. She got into an argument with colleagues about race and white privilege which ended with two of her colleagues telling her that “the majority of crimes in England are made by black people”. Shortly after this argument, Ms Abdi had to log on to a computer using a colleague’s log in details to complete some work. When logged on she came across a WhatsApp group which included several of her colleaguesand her line manager, who were continuing the conversation about race and white privilege, excluding Ms Abdi. In the conversation her colleagues make a number of offensive remarks including the term “f***ing immigrants”. Members of the group had also asked what “her” problem was and for someone to “shut this terrorist up” before they “rip her headscarf off”. The conversation also included smiling and laughing emojis, and emojis of women wearing the hijab.
Ms Abdi complained to her line manager about the argument relating to race and crime but did not mention the WhatsApp group. He ignored he concerns.
Ms Abdi logged on to her colleague’s computer a few days later and found that the conversation had continued in the WhatsApp group. Ms Abdi screenshotted the conversation. She then reported her findings to the company’s Chief Executive, Mr Cunningham.
Mr Cunningham acknowledged the contents of the WhatsApp discussion were extremely inappropriate and included derogatory and deeply unpleasant comments about Ms Abdi and another female colleague. Mr Cunningham investigated the allegations. Following his investigation, Ms Abdi’s line manager was given a final written warning because he was a long-standing employee and another employee also received a final written warning.
The two colleagues who had argued with Ms Abdi initially about crime and race and who had taken part in the WhatsApp Group were dismissed.
Mr Cunningham met with Ms Abdi and concluded that all of the members of staff involved had been dealt with appropriately. Ms Abdi resigned and brought claims for harassment due to her sex, race and religion.
The Tribunal accepted that the comments in the WhatsApp group were made about Ms Abdi and another female colleague. The offensive comments were made around or shortly after the time that the argument took place about crime and race. In the ruling, the Judge said the office environment in which Ms Abdi worked was “chaotic and juvenile as described by the claimant” and “one in which inappropriate language was commonplace”. The Tribunal ruled that the content of the WhatsApp discussion constituted harassment in that it was “unwanted conduct that has had the effect of violating the claimant’s dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive environment for the claimant”.
This case highlights how employers can be held responsible for discriminatory conduct in the virtual work environment. Employers need to be aware that they can be liable for the behaviour of employees, even when they are using personal devices or taking part in social functions outside of work. The lines between home and work as becoming increasingly blurred and given the pandemic employers have increasingly turned to technology to enable remote working and adopted more flexible working patterns. There is a tendency towards informality when using apps like Whatsapp and it is therefore important that employers remain vigilant and ensure employees have had sufficient training to understand how to conduct themselves when using technology and the virtual space.
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This alert does not provide a full statement of the law and readers are advised to take legal advice before taking any action based on the information contained herein.