Worker who discovered colleagues’ racist WhatsApp chat awarded £25,000 for unlawful harassment

Judge rules group messages including members of senior management created ‘hostile, degrading and humiliating’ work environment.

An operations clerk who discovered a WhatsApp group dedicated to racially abusing her and another colleague has been awarded almost £25,000 for unlawful harassment on the grounds of sex, race and religious belief. 

Following a hearing in late 2020, the tribunal ruled that Mrs M Abdi’s employer, distribution services provider Deltec’s handling of the situation was “inadequate” because after discovering the offensive WhatsApp group, she had “continued interaction” with those involved. 

A further claim for equal pay was dismissed. 

Abdi was employed as an evening operations clerk by Deltec in Hounslow, Middlesex from November 2017 until her resignation in September 2018. The tribunal said that Abdi is of black Somali origin, having moved to the UK as a child, and she wears a hijab. 

She told the tribunal that the company’s export department was a “chaotic” working environment with a “juvenile atmosphere” and a high staff turnover. On 10 August 2018, there was a discussion in the office about white privilege between Abdi and some of her colleagues which developed into a “heated” argument.

In what Abdi described as a “vile discussion”, two colleagues told her that “the majority of crimes in England are made by black people”, and she countered their claims. The colleagues then attempted to find evidence on the internet to substantiate their argument, and despite not finding any, they continued to push their opinion. 

Shortly after the argument, Abdi used a colleague’s login details, which the tribunal confirmed was in the proper course of her duties, to access a computer. She discovered a WhatApp group chat which included her line manager, Simon Hocking, and the colleagues involved in the earlier argument.

The tribunal said the messages within the chat, which were sent around the time of the argument, were “highly offensive and threatening” towards Abdi, referring to her as a terrorist, a postbox and suggesting she should “suffer”. 

Abdi told the tribunal that she complained to Hocking about the discussion but alleged he did not take the matter seriously, telling her it was a “he said, she said” scenario. She also recorded her discussions with Hocking after discovering him on the WhatsApp group, and the transcripts showed that he said to Abdi: “I hate racism [but] all that’s going to happen is it’s going to be you and [another colleague] versus them three, and it’s going to go around in circles”. Abdi did not take her complaints to senior management as she was already embroiled in a disagreement about pay and a stolen mobile phone, but she did screenshot the WhatsApp group. 

On 14 August, she logged in to the computer again and found the WhatsApp group name had been changed to “ALHAMDULLAH” and the icon was changed to a picture of a black hijab. There were also more racist messages about Abdi and another colleague which she took a screenshot of. 

The tribunal said that the discussion violated Abdi’s dignity and created an “intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive environment”.

Abdi sent the screenshots to a senior member of staff who sent them on to chief executive, Mr Cunningham, who described the chat as having “extremely inappropriate and foul language, some derogatory and deeply unpleasant comments made about [Abdi and another colleague].” He also said the participants thought they were “being amusing” but actually being “offensive”. 

Cunningham moved Abdi and the other colleague out of the export office and away from those in the chat while he investigated, but the tribunal found this to be “inadequate”. Cunningham told the tribunal that Abdi was glad she was moved out of the “playground”, but Abdi told the tribunal she thought it was “weird” that she was dealing with the chief executive and not HR, and that she lied to Cunningham because she “didn’t want to disagree with the CEO”. 

As a result of the investigation, Hocking – who had more than 10 years of service – was issued a final written warning, but two other members who were still in their probationary period were dismissed. Cunningham apologised to Abdi and told her that the business had taken appropriate action.

However, Abdi told the tribunal that despite her office move, Hocking and the remaining members of the WhatsApp group continued to come into her office and stare at her “with smirking faces”. Abdi resigned from her position with immediate effect on 1 September 2018.

At the remedy hearing, Abdi was awarded £24,945.72 for injury to feeling and financial losses.

Employment judge Skehan said that Abdi was the “sole black, hijab-wearing member of staff within the group and the unlawful harassment was felt by [Abdi], whether intentional or not, as an expression of hate for her religion, ethnic origin and gender”, adding that the discussion included her immediate line manager which was “likely to be upsetting”. 

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