No matter what guise it adopts, discriminatory behaviour is never anything but harmful. Over a third of UK adults experience workplace discrimination. As a result, more and more people are beginning to take a stand against it and are challenging employers and entire institutions in court or the employment tribunal.
Of the many discrimination cases appearing before judges and investigators in the UK, some truly stand out for their severity or uniqueness. We take a look at just how varied cases of discrimination can be.
Dirty dozen of the worst UK discrimination cases
1. When age is not just a number, and neither is a hefty fine
An 89-year-old NHS secretary, Eileen Jolly, became the oldest person in the UK to win an age discrimination claim. Her superiors at Reading's Royal Berkshire Hospital fired her, claiming that she was stuck in her "old secretarial ways" and that she had demonstrated a "catastrophic failure in performance".
In a nutshell, Eileen was fired for not having the ability to use a modern computer. However, the employment tribunal found that "there was evidence of the claimant's training having been inadequate, incomplete and the 'on the job' training was ad hoc and not directed". While Eileen never got her job back, she did end up £200,000 richer!
2. Discrimination infiltrates the Ministry of Defence
Hani Gue and Nkululeko Zulu, two former British paratroopers, won a claim against the Ministry of Defence for the years of racial discrimination they endured while serving with the 3rd Battalion (3 Para) at Colchester. Among the many offences carried out against them, a particularly nasty one stands out – racist graffiti was drawn over photos of the two men attached to Gue's door, including a Hitler-style moustache, a swastika and a vile racist comment.
The tribunal ruled that the "act was so unpleasant that it can only have been done to violate the claimants' dignity and create an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive environment for them". It also pointed out that there is a significantly disproportionate number of complaints of racial or sexual discrimination stemming from the MoD, an issue which the ministry promised to put to an end.
3. BNP Paribas' #MeToo moment
A female broker won her sexual discrimination case against BNP Paribas. Stacey Macken told the tribunal that her mostly-male colleagues routinely subjected her to humiliating and sexist behaviour, such as leaving a witch's hat on her desk. She also said that her boss often answered with "Not now, Stacey" when asked a question.
As if that wasn't bad enough, Macken claimed that the bank frequently carried out her performance reviews in a way that made light of her contributions.
Unsurprisingly, this meant that she often missed out on bonuses that were dished out readily to her male colleagues, and the tribunal ruled that they couldn't find any evidence to the contrary. In the end, Macken won £2m from the sexual discrimination case.
4. Police force has deaf ears about hearing tests
In one of the more unusual cases on this list, a policewoman who is not disabled has won a claim against the police force for direct disability discrimination. Lisa Coffey was given a standard medical examination that revealed hearing loss upon joining the force. However, since she could pass the force's practical hearing test, she was permitted to work without requiring any adjustments.
Two years after she started working as a constable, Coffey applied for a transfer to another police force and was once again required to undergo a medical test. The results of this test were identical to the first; however, the Acting Chief Inspector refused her application because her hearing loss was likely to deteriorate in the future. The employment tribunal found this perception to be direct disability discrimination and awarded Coffey £26,616.05 in compensation.
5. An important lesson for teacher's employer
Gary Day-Davies, a teacher, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, won a case against United Learning Trust for their discriminatory treatment. After initially being suspended for being unfit to work, Day-Davies took appropriate measures to enable a speedy recovery. However, once he obtained proof from his GP and a psychologist that he was fit to work once more, the trust rejected this evidence, and his suspension was upheld.
While Manchester's employment tribunal ruled that the trust was right to initially suspend Day-Davies, rejecting solid recommendations from health professionals for no logical reason was not. In the end, the tribunal ruled that this was little more than a classic case of disability discrimination.
6. Lost in translation
A couple were awarded £2,500 in compensation after they suffered racial discrimination at the hands of a car sales company. Kin Hung Wong, a man of Chinese descent, and his wife, a Hong Kong national, visited John Mulholland Motors to buy a new car. Wong conducted all negotiations with staff in English, his first language. However, when explaining certain aspects of the sale to his wife, he switched to Cantonese, her mother tongue.
Regrettably, this was something that didn't go down too well with the staff present, who kept asking them to switch to English "because we are in the UK", despite Wong explaining that his wife can't speak it well enough to engage in a proper conversation. Wong said they were treated aggressively and rudely and not even offered a handshake once the sale was complete. The judge ruled that John Mulholland Motors's staff had "created a degrading and humiliating environment", which is why he ultimately ruled in the couple's favour.
7. Home Office worries lead to internal consequences
In what can only be described as a devastating let-down, British-born Vitesh Patel was fired from his dream job a mere two hours after being hired! With seven years of rising through the Home Office ranks under his belt, Patel applied to be an immigration liaison officer in New Delhi. He aced the interview, and an email confirming the post followed shortly after.
Unfortunately, he soon received another email that effectively fired him since his family connections in India presented "a risk that the employee may come under significant and unwelcome external pressure - in addition to the obvious conflict of interest risks." The employment tribunal found that Patel's unfair dismissal was racially discriminatory since his ethnic origin was used as grounds to deny him an opportunity he deserved.
8. Fit to carry a child but not carry out her job
A pregnant policewoman won a sex discrimination case against Devon and Cornwall Police after she was forced to move from the front line to a desk-bound position. Once PC Natalie Town informed her superiors about the pregnancy, she was given no choice but to move to the Crime Management Hub. Her employers believed this was "safe and suitable for a pregnant woman" despite her receiving advice that she was fit to carry out her regular role.
PC Town did not take the change well and felt it would permanently harm her career. As a result, she developed anxiety, depression, and migraine headaches, leading to a lengthy absence from work. The employment tribunal ruled that PC Town was a victim of indirect sex discrimination. Therefore, women were at a particular disadvantage in the form of susceptibility to an enforced transfer from an operational role to a non-operational role".
9. The inability to read or tell time doesn't equal dishonesty
Meseret Kumulchew, a dyslexic woman, beat Starbucks in a disability discrimination case after being wrongly accused of falsifying documents. The accusation was made after she mistakenly entered incorrect information on certain documents due to her condition, making it hard to read, write or tell the time.
Quite understandably, Kumulchew took the wild accusations badly, telling the BBC, "I nearly ended my life. But I had to think of my kids. I know I'm not a fraud. I just made a mistake." The employment tribunal uncovered that the coffee shop had not made any reasonable adjustments for dyslexic workers, thereby discriminating against Kumulchew because of her condition.
10. Turning a frown into a smile
In 2016, an Orthodox Jewish nursery fired Zelda De Groen from her job as a teacher. The reason for her dismissal was that people found out she was living with her boyfriend without being married, something generally frowned upon by the Orthodox Jewish community. After making the discovery, the school asked De Groen to tell the parents that she had changed living arrangements. When she refused, she was fired.
She took her case to the employment tribunal in 2017, where they found that she had suffered from both sex and religious discrimination. However, the nursery immediately appealed, and the Employment Appeal Tribunal later concluded that only the sex discrimination verdict applied. The nursery was cleared of the religious discrimination charge after the judge, Mr Justice Swift stated that employers are allowed to act to the detriment of an employee based on the employer's beliefs but not on the worker's.
11. Pink or Punk?
Another particularly odd case on this list involves a man who sued a brewery for refusing to serve him a drink at a discounted price. Ironically, Cardiff's Brewdog had relabelled some of their 'Punk IPA' bottles as 'Pink IPA' to raise awareness about the gender pay gap, selling them a pound cheaper than the standard drink. However, to buy one, you had to be a woman, which is where the root of this case lies.
When 27-year-old Thomas Bower, a male, tried to purchase a £4 bottle of Pink IPA, he was refused due to his gender. Oddly enough, he was allowed to purchase it after lying to the barman he identified as female. District Judge Phillips ruled in Bower's favour, finding the brewery guilty of sexual discrimination, adding that Bower must have felt "humiliated", which is why he was awarded £1,000 in compensation.
12. The cake case that takes the biscuit
Possibly the most high-profile discrimination case in UK history involves a 'gay marriage cake'. The trouble all started when Ashers Baking Company, a bakery with evangelical Christian owners, refused to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage message due to their religious beliefs. The case was heard by several different courts, with judges initially siding against the bakery, deeming their refusal to be discriminatory.
However, in 2018 the supreme court went against previously made judgements. Instead, it ruled that the bakery had every right to refuse baking a cake that is against their beliefs, thereby clearing Ashers of all discrimination charges. Gareth Lee, the customer who originally ordered the cake, said he would take the case to the European Court.
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