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Donkin on Work - Workplace Discrimination

May 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to date – brought against HBOS, the banking group, by former head of asset and liability management Claire Bright, was withdrawn in January.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 department.

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 City employers.

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 experts.

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 team.

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 prospects.

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 stimulates creativity.

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 skills.

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/

   
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