Swearing at work was ruled acceptable by one employment tribunal judge, while another gave out £71,000 in compensation when a manager said he did not want bald men in his team.
These are two examples of the use of ordinary language in the workplace about which employment tribunals had to make judgments.
In the first case, Bruce Pell, a manager at software development company SAP (UK), dropped the F-bomb during a tense work meeting. Colleague Hasmita Dadhania later sued for unfair dismissal and discrimination.
The manager denied swearing, yet Judge Andrew Gumbiti-Zimuto said that even if he had, this was “fairly commonplace” and it had a “lack of significance”.
Though Mr Pell’s behaviour was seen as aggressive at the meeting, the judge felt that the actual swear words “do not carry the shock value they might have done in another time”.
Mrs Dadhania won her claim of unfair dismissal but lost her claims of direct age, race and sex discrimination and victimisation.
In another recent case, mobile phone company Tango Networks had to compensate Mark Jones, 61, for age discrimination and unfair dismissal. His manager, Philip Hesketh, had said: “I don’t want a ‘team of bald-headed 50-year-old men”.
Ironically, the bald-headed Mr Hesketh was referring to a lack of diversity within his sales team, saying that candidates for a job had been ‘mirror images’ of himself – middle aged white men. The qualities he wanted in candidates were ‘high energy’, ‘energetic’ and ‘youthful’, implying that Mr Jones was ‘undynamic’.
The tribunal found that there had been a ‘firm plan to dismiss Mr Jones and replace him with another candidate’ quickly. However an unexpected spell of sick leave meant that he returned to work after completing two years’ service, making it harder to push him out.
Mr Jones was suddenly put on a Performance Improvement Plan and he then raised a grievance, which the tribunal decided was not dealt with fairly.
Judge Ian Miller said that the company had “chipped away at the relationship” from Mr Jones’ perspective and in the entirety of the circumstances it was reasonable for him to feel that they “seriously damaged the relationship of trust”.
Both cases demonstrate the importance of language in the workplace. Society is changing and swearing is now not considered a big deal by many, but all managers need to choose their words very carefully when it comes to describing what they want and expect from their staff. Careless words can lead to big payouts.