Written by Joanna Dobie, Senior HR Consultant, Alcumus
Here are some examples of recent tribunal cases where workplace nicknames were used to bring successful claims against employers.
“Gramps”: Age discrimination
It can be age discrimination to give an employee a nickname that relates to his or her age. Examples include calling an older worker an “old fogey” or calling a younger worker the “stroppy teenager”.
The successful age discrimination claim in Dove v Brown & Newirth Ltd is an example of an inappropriate, age-related nickname in the workplace.
For years Mr Dove tolerated being referred to by younger colleagues as “Gramps”. He did not complain at the time but following his dismissal he put the nickname forward as strong evidence that his colleagues had ageist attitudes.
“Borat”: Race discrimination
In Ruda v Tei Ltd an ill-advised workplace nickname resulted in a successful discrimination claim.
The tribunal upheld a Polish welder’s race discrimination claim over the nickname “Borat”, on the basis that the name evoked stereotypes about Eastern Europeans. Borat is the name of a Kazakhstani film and television character created by Sasha Baron Cohen.
Giving a worker a nickname based on his or her country of origin, or stereotypes from that part of the world, risk a finding of harassment and direct discrimination.
“Sooty and Sweep”: Race discrimination
Buckle and Mitchell v Brook Daihatsu involved a particularly unpleasant example of racial abuse.
Two black employees were found to have suffered race discrimination when they were called “Sooty and Sweep” by their colleagues.
The tribunal was “satisfied that those nicknames had a racial connotation” and that they continued even after the employees complained to their employer.
“Thick Paddy”: Race discrimination
In McAuley v Auto Alloys Foundry Ltd, an Irishman working in England was subjected to repeated anti-Irish remarks by his colleagues.
Remarks included “typical Irish” when he made a mistake and he was nicknamed “thick Paddy”. He was dismissed after complaining to his employer about this.
The tribunal concluded that the claimant was dismissed “principally because he was an Irishman who would not take Irish jokes lying down”.
He was subject to a detriment, “namely stress and humiliation which we are satisfied he suffered in consequence of those remarks”.
The tribunal awarded £5,902 for his unlawful dismissal including £2,500 for injury to feelings.
“Ironside”: Disability discrimination
In Davies v Remploy, a wheelchair user brought a workplace disability harassment claim on the basis that a manager nicknamed him “Ironside”. This was in reference to a popular television series about a former police detective who used a wheelchair after a sniper’s bullet paralysed him from the waist down.
The tribunal held that the manager’s conduct had the effect of violating the claimant’s dignity, and upheld the disability harassment claim.
Employers should remember that time and again tribunals have rejected the notion that a harassment claim can be defended on the basis that the remarks were “only banter”.
This is because one person’s humour can seem like an offensive and degrading remark to another. The intention of the alleged offender does not matter.
If you would like HR advice on a particular situation within your workplace, please call your dedicated HR Consultant to discuss this further.