Banter and nicknames are often considered part of good team relationships at work. However, sometimes it can overstep the line, and employers must be alert to the possibility of potential discrimination claims.
In the Employment Tribunal case of Dove v Brown & Newirth Ltd (2015), an employee brought claims for unfair dismissal and age discrimination.
Mr Dove had been a Sales Representative with his employers for 25 years and was in his late 50s. A new Sales Director was appointed in 2011 and he nicknamed Mr Dove “Gramps” and used the term many times, in front of other employees. The new Sales Director was much younger than Mr Dove.
In early 2015, Mr Dove was dismissed because it was alleged that some clients no longer wished to work with Mr Dove, saying they wanted “a fresh approach” and that Mr Dove was “old fashioned” and “too long in the tooth”. The employers had conducted various performance reviews with Mr Dove prior to his dismissal.
Mr Dove brought claims for unfair dismissal and direct age discrimination in relation to his dismissal, and a further age discrimination claim in relation to being called “Gramps”.
The employers argued that Mr Dove’s dismissal was justifiable due to ‘some other substantial reason’ because clients were requesting not to work with Mr Dove. However, this argument was rejected. The Employment Tribunal said that the company had not sufficiently questioned the comments from clients, and had adopted the same attitude when making its decision to dismiss. This amounted to less favourable treatment on the grounds of age. This also made Mr Dove’s dismissal unfair.
In relation to the use of the nickname “Gramps”, the Employment Tribunal accepted that it was banter, but said that this does not mean it was not discriminatory. There was even an email from Mr Dove where he called himself “Gramps”! The fact that the nickname was used more than once or twice counted against the employer and the Employment Tribunal decided that this did amount to less favourable treatment of Mr Dove, because a younger employee would not have been called such a nickname.
Mr Dove was awarded just over £63,000 in relation to his claims.
So this case is a reminder that employers must be careful of instances where banter and nicknames can go a step too far and become discriminatory, and to ensure that when such instances occur it is best to discourage the practice as quickly as possible. This case illustrates that even if an employee appears to accept a nickname or banter that does not prevent them from later arguing that it was unfair or discriminatory. A good equal opportunities policy, along with training of employees can really help prevent any incidents occurring in the workplace. In addition, it is good to be cautious of dealing with comments from third parties that may also be discriminatory towards employees, and to ensure that any subsequent action arising from such comments is dealt with fairly, with sufficient consideration given to the impact on the employee.
On that note, I’ll put on my slippers and light my pipe!
We can help with equal opportunities policies and staff training, as well as advising on particular situations. Please contact any member of the Pure Employment Law team (01243 836840 or [email protected]).