“Street Talk” Not Acceptable
6 July 2016
Mann v NSL Ltd
An employee was talking with three white male colleagues when he used the n-word to describe a woman with whom he had previously played darts. Their conversation was overheard by a female colleague, who was also white, and she immediately challenged him on his use of the term. The female colleague subsequently reported the employee to senior management. Disciplinary proceedings commenced and, ultimately, he was dismissed.
The employee contended that his dismissal was unfair. He argued that he did not realise that anyone was listening to his private conversation and that he did not realise his language would cause offence. He also argued that the term he used was “accepted local street talk” and did not bear any racist connotations. Having put forward his position during the internal disciplinary process, he then proceeded to repeat his arguments before an Employment Tribunal when he brought a claim for unfair dismissal.
Whilst the Tribunal acknowledged that there could, potentially, be some contexts in which the term can be used without causing offence, the workplace was certainly not one of them. It was also held that it made absolutely no difference that he was unaware that somebody else was listening or that he did not intend any offence to be caused. It was irrelevant that his comments were made only in the presence of white people. The employer had conducted a reasonable investigation and made a decision that was within the band of reasonable responses. The dismissal was therefore fair and the employee’s claim was dismissed.
It is still essential that a fair process is followed when you are looking to terminate an employee’s contract, regardless of the reason. That is what the employer did in this case - had it failed to do so, the outcome may well have been different.
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