2007 – Playing out workplace grievances
It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that some
of the UK’s biggest employee discrimination claims
in the past few years have involved City institutions.
Some of the most prominent claims have involved allegations
of sex discrimination. One of the biggest just now is the
£1.3m compensation claim for sex discrimination, victimisation
and constructive dismissal lodged against BNP Paribas Bank
by Katharina Tofeji, a former trader at the bank who believes
she was treated unfairly after taking maternity leave.
Not every case succeeds. A bullying and victimisation claim
of £11m – the UK’s biggest to date –
brought against HBOS, the banking group, by former head
of asset and liability management Claire Bright, was withdrawn
in January. No compensation was paid in respect of the allegations.
In another case, the Court of Appeal dismissed a claim
for unfair dismissal, sex discrimination and victimisation
made by Andrea Madarassy against Nomura International where
she had worked in the bank’s equity capital markets
She started her job in January 2000 but was made redundant
in November 2001 four months after returning from maternity
leave. Ms Madarassy said afterwards that she had wanted
to raise the issue of the treatment of pregnant women among
These cases, successful or not, raise the question of whether
City employers face different issues than those of employers
elsewhere in the country.
Last week I chaired a one-day conference, HR in the City,
run by the City Personnel Group, an industry association
set up to promote good human resources practices in the
financial services sector.
The morning session was much like that of any other conference
with speakers supported by their Power Point presentations.
But the afternoon session was more of an experiment where
a group of actors working for Steps Drama Learning Development,
a drama-based training company, played out various fictional
workplace scenarios in front of a panel of HR and legal
The great thing about this is that it allowed the HR professionals
in the audience to get some first hand advice about the
kind of relationship issues that are happening every day
in the workforce and that, if not managed properly, can
lead at best to the loss of talented employees and at worst
to high profile discrimination cases that make entertaining
reading for everyone who is not involved.
The reality of management is that you rarely get the chance
to rehearse the conversations you have with employees. You
have to play everything by ear often in circumstances where
you may have had no previous experience.
Take sexual harassment. It’s not so unusual in companies.
But the Steps case involved a trader complaining to a sales
manager about over familiarity on the part of his openly
gay boss. Man-on-man harassment involving suspicions of
homophobia is thankfully rare, probably because most gay
men live with the knowledge that they must take extra care
around their heterosexual colleagues.
But in this scenario the boss has been just a little bit
too tactile with one of his team, lingering a little too
long with a handshake, invading personal space, brushing
against his colleague by the coffee machine. When confronted
with these “misdemeanours” he is outraged and
wants to know the source of the allegations.
The panel and audience were able to give advice to the
actors as the scenarios played out. In this case my inclination
was to tell the trader to sort it out himself but he is
afraid that doing so may lead to his estrangement within
The main point is that this is not a clear case of sexual
harassment. Most probably it is merely a misunderstanding
on both sides, yet one that could escalate in to something
far more serious if not handled sensitively.
What I liked about each of the scenarios is that there
was no pat answer, no right way of doing things beyond trying
to apply common sense. While each of these cases involved
the workplace, at source they were all about human relationships
and people are complicated.
The first scenario that touched on some of the sexual discrimination
cases mentioned earlier, involved an experienced project
manager returning to work after taking maternity leave to
find that her role had disappeared, leaving her on the same
salary as before but with a less of a job and fewer promotion
In this case her manager was sympathetic but unable to
offer any redress. It is difficult to do so given the fast
moving nature of business today, including the widespread
use of development projects, that is increasing tensions
in permanent employment.
As Lord Wilson, the former head of the home civil service,
said at the start of the conference, the future for workplaces
is looking chaotic in contrast to the controlled environments
of the past. But he spoke optimistically of a chaos that
Part of that creativity has to come from management yet
I heard few interventions advising parties to think more
creatively about their jobs. Why are so many companies and
individuals stuck in the rut created by the permanent job?
Jobs change, people change, circumstances change yet change
so often is interpreted as a threat rather than an opportunity.
I sometimes wonder whether the option of legal address
is so attractive for employees and so alarming for employers
that neither side is willing to pursue innovative alternatives
for fear of weakening their respective legal arguments.
The three other scenarios involved a case of drug abuse
– not unknown in City institutions - one involving
potential age discrimination, and one looking at religious
discrimination. The latter is a hot topic after recent controversies
over women wearing veils and the British Airways dispute
where a check-in advisor was told that the crucifix worn
around her neck infringed the company dress code on the
wearing of visible jewellery.
One of the hardest cases was the age discrimination allegations
made by an experienced technical manager, a man in his 50s,
who had been overlooked to run a technology project in favour
of a younger man who was perceived to have better interpersonal
The man was good at his job but abrasive – what might
be called old school. Maybe it’s a sign of my own
age but I found myself agreeing with him. He was there to
install terminals. How much empathy does anyone need for
a job like that?
The more I heard these cases the more I wanted to tell
the people with grievances to get out and go it alone. They
may have been staged by actors, but stories like these are
being played out in workplaces every day. You don’t
find answers in a manual, nor should most of cases like
these be a matter for the courts. Sadly that’s where
some will end. Others will be settled quietly with hush
money amid rancour, bitterness and recriminations And all
the time the way we work is changing. We need to wake up.
City Personnel Group - http://www.complinet.com/cpg/