December 9, 2021

Be wary of stereotypical assumptions

In a recent Employment Tribunal case, a 6ft male employee was awarded almost £50,000 against Tesco, as a victim of sex discrimination after his 5ft 4”, pregnant boss triggered his post-traumatic stress disorder.

What happened?

Prior to joining Tesco, Toby King had been held hostage in his previous job, when he worked at the Prison Service. That incident had caused him to suffer from PTSD.

In December 2018 when he worked for Tesco, Mr King's boss physically prevented him from leaving a room at the store where they worked. Mr King claimed that the incident triggered his PTSD which caused him to be absent from work on several occasions. Ultimately, those absences led to his dismissal.

When Mr King raised concerns about the incident with more senior members of staff, his concerns were not taken seriously. The managers were heavily influenced by the fact that Mr King’s line manager was a 5ft 4 pregnant woman, and Mr King was a 6ft tall man. The managers assumed that Mr King could not have been physically intimidated because of the difference in size and sex. As a result, Mr King’s concerns were not properly investigated.

Unsurprisingly, the Tribunal decided that this amounted to sex discrimination against Mr King.

The issue

It was clear from the evidence that if the claimant had been a woman, Tesco would not have made the same stereotypical assumptions about size and intimidation.

This highlights that making assumptions about someone's behaviour or feelings based on stereotypes of sex, race or any other protected characteristic, can influence your perspective on a situation. Continuing to make decisions based on those assumptions will directly link the treatment of that person to their protected characteristic.

If the outcome of that treatment negatively affects that person, employers could easily be subject to a discrimination claim.

Practical advice

The tribunal highlighted that "none of the managers from whom we have heard described taking HR advice before making decisions in relation to the claimant".

Managers should therefore be trained on:

  • how to properly conduct an investigation;
  • equality, diversity and inclusion, so that they can avoid making discriminatory assumptions and judgements; and
  • when to refer situations to HR in order to ensure they are following best practice.

In particular, grievances, investigations and disciplinary proceedings must comply with ACAS guidelines and be dealt with fairly and reasonably.

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