An employment tribunal awarded a male employee over £63,000 following his colleagues calling him “Gramps” for a number of years. Does your work environment allow, or even encourage nicknames to be used?

Background

Mr Dove (D) had been a salesperson and long-serving employee with Brown & Newirth Ltd (B), a small company that manufactures and sells jewellery. Some years ago the head of sales – who was a good few years younger than D – started to call him “Gramps”. This nickname was mentioned in e-mails, said to D directly, and used whilst others were present.

Over time, it caught on to such an extent that D was always called Gramps by his colleagues. Whilst he was quite unhappy about the situation, he did not ever make any complaints or ask people to stop using the nickname.

When D turned 60, his key sales accounts were transferred to the head of sales. There were suggestions that some customers had described him as being “old fashioned”, “long in the tooth” and his “traditional approach” was out of step with their business needs.

B dismissed D who, in turn, issued a claim for age discrimination at the tribunal. The tribunal said it was in no doubt that phrases such as “old fashioned” and “long in the tooth” were references to D’s age and found that his dismissal was influenced by customers’ stereotypical views about age (which the employer did not seek to challenge). The nickname “Gramps” also confirmed to the tribunal that ageist attitudes were tolerated in the employer’s workplace.

Sizeable award

The tribunal accepted B’s argument that the nickname “Gramps” was not meant to be offensive. However, that argument didn’t prevent its use being deemed discriminatory behaviour on the grounds of age. The tribunal also agreed that D had found the continual use of the nickname disrespectful and hurtful, not light workplace banter as B suggested. The tribunal awarded D £63,391 in compensation for the age discrimination he had suffered.

The tribunal’s ruling in Dove v Brown & Newirth Ltd 2016 serves as an important reminder to all employers.

This ruling is not a one-off – where a nickname is motivated by a protected characteristic, the tribunal will almost certainly find its use to be discriminatory. For example, in previous cases, a Polish employee who was repeatedly referred to as “Borat” won his claim for discrimination on the grounds of race; and a wheelchair user who was nicknamed “Ironside” successfully claimed discrimination on the grounds of disability.

Workplace culture

Do not, under any circumstances, allow nicknames to be used in your workplace that are linked to a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. Protected characteristics are defined as Age, Disability, Gender Reassignment, Marriage and Civil Partnerships, Pregnancy and Maternity, Race, Religion or belief, Sex and Sexual Orientation. Even if an employee doesn’t seem bothered about a nickname, as this case shows, you could still end up paying them a sizeable amount of compensation.

Age discrimination that arises through the use of nicknames isn’t an issue that only affects older employees. If a younger employee is called, say, “Sonny”, “Kid” or “Princess” by their colleagues, they could equally have a potential claim against you.

Concerned?

If you would like to understand protected characteristics more, or are concerned about any of the issues raised in this article, please give us a call to discuss your options. We’re a friendly bunch and really keen to make a difference to your business by finding a solution that works for you and your business whether for ad-hoc HR advice, or putting together a strategic HR plan. Call us on 01473 360160.