UK Law firm to pay ex-employee £9,500 over ‘Chinese chip shop’ comment

The UK Law Gazette reports

A south-west firm has been told to pay £9,500 to a former employee over a comment from a colleague about her Chinese heritage, despite being cleared of unfair dismissal and discrimination.

Employment judge James Bax, sitting at the Bristol tribunal, said the comment directed at Miss S Sutherland during her time at Watkins Solicitors was ‘upsetting, offensive and embarrassing’ and constituted harassment. Sutherland had mentioned in February 2019 that her grandmother was of Chinese heritage, to which a colleague responded: ‘Does she own a chip shop, all Chinese own chip shops?’

The claimant later raised her concern with the firm that the colleague was dismissive when it was brought to his attention – although the two continued to work together.

The tribunal heard that the colleague, who has also since left Watkins, had a ‘tendency to be loud’ and that his line manager would sometimes intervene when she thought he might say something inappropriate. It was noted by the tribunal that if the colleague said anything inappropriate or offensive he would say ‘I don’t care, go tell HR’.

The judge said the firm should have ‘impressed more strongly’ that the colleague’s behaviour was unacceptable, and the way in which the comment was dealt with was ‘insufficient and unreasonable’, although it was not a fundamental breach of contract.

Sutherland, an administrative assistant in the conveyancing department who described herself as a black woman, was unsuccessful in her claims of constructive unfair dismissal, direct discrimination, victimisation and the remaining claims of harassment.

The tribunal heard that her manager had shouted aggressively at her in front of colleagues while working on reception and that this caused Sutherland to feel ‘humiliated’. She pointed out that her female colleague on reception, who was white, was not shouted at. The judge said there was no evidence that Sutherland’s manager had ever made racist or sexist remarks. Her manager, it was accepted, had been frustrated and ‘needed to show restraint’, but it was an isolated incident and not on its own a fundamental breach of contract.

Sutherland’s complaints of discrimination, over the response to her taking emergency leave to deal with her sick daughter, of being taken off tasks with no explanation, and being targeted in a group email, were all dismissed.

The tribunal also found that the firm acted with reasonable and proper cause when deciding to furlough Sutherland in March 2020.

Sutherland was awarded £8,500 for injury to feelings together with interest of almost £1,000.