When banter is discrimination

An employee who was subjected to jokes about Alzheimer’s disease was a victim of harassment and direct discrimination, even though the comments were meant as “office banter”, a tribunal has ruled. She was found to have been the victim of age discrimination after her manager made comments implying that her memory was “defective” because of her age and that she had Alzheimer’s which was linked to her poor performance.

The employee was 57 and was “enthusiastic and communicated well on the telephone and with the team”. However, she was “making errors in welcome letters and CVs that she was sending out”.

At a meeting, the employee’s manager was angry and impatient with her which made her feel uncomfortable and unwilling to seek help with her work. She said she had previously enjoyed the work, but the thought of entering the office each morning made her “tearful and nervous”.

The tribunal heard that problems continued to persist with her performance and her managers concluded that she was “taking too long to learn the basics and had to be dismissed”. She was provided with a letter dismissing her and gave cited “inadequate performance during extended probation period”. The employee raised a grievance citing age discrimination and it came to light that the employee’s manager had suggested on several occasions that the employee had Alzheimer’s disease. She said that this was something that happened around once a week.

The employee brought claims of harassment and discrimination because of her age to the employment tribunal. The tribunal found in favour for part of the claim of direct discrimination. It found that the Alzheimer’s remarks were an act of direct discrimination because they would not have been made to an employee materially younger than the employee. The Tribunal ruled that it was reasonable for the employee to find the remarks intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive.”

The tribunal ordered the employer to pay the employee £900 as compensation in respect of the harassment and direct discrimination together with interest of £100.41, noting that the evidence suggested “any injury having been slight” and that no complaints were lodged at the time the remarks about Alzheimer’s were made.

This case in yet another example of how banter is never an excuse for discriminatory comments. Tribunals are unlikely to uphold such a defence for this behaviour. It is therefore crucial that all employees, and managers, are aware of what constitutes acceptable conversation at work. If allegations are made against any member of staff, they should be fully investigated, and disciplinary action taken if necessary.

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