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27th September, 2021

‘Pet names’ and ‘Banter’ – no longer a joke

‘Pet names’ and ‘Banter’ – no longer a joke

Two cases tackling ‘pet names’, ‘banter’ and ‘foolish jokes’ have hit the headlines this month, both highlighting the need for increased awareness regarding the use of language in the workplace and the need to set a culture of dignity, respect and professionalism.

In the first case (Hartley v D Hollowell & Sons Ltd), Mr Hartley brought claims for unfair dismissal and sex discrimination.  He alleged that his dismissal was unfair and discriminatory and that he was a victim of the ‘me too’ movement (in so far as he sought to claim that his female colleagues’ harassment claims against him were automatically believed).

Whilst his unfair dismissal claim succeeded based on procedural failings, he was awarded no compensation due to his contributory fault leading to his dismissal.  His argument that he was a ‘victim’ of the ‘me too’’ movement also failed.

Mr Hartley was dismissed from his role within HR at a funeral home following several incidents, including use of inappropriate language.  Incidents included making reference to looking up a colleague’s skirt (whilst she was taking care of a deceased child) and on another occasion asking for her ‘vital statistics’ which featured among many other alleged incidents (some of which were denied by the Claimant); acts which ultimately led to his dismissal and findings that he had demonstrated a lack of respect for younger women.

In the detailed judgment, the Tribunal detailed the incidents that were referred to in the evidence.  The Claimant accepted he referred to women as ‘sweet/sweetie’, ‘chick’, ‘honey’,’hun’, ‘babes’ and ‘love’, referred to as ‘pet names’ within the judgment.

The ET held that the use of ‘pet names’ is demeaning and infantalising.

The tribunal differentiated between the terms ‘mate’ or ‘lad’ as being nick names (which the Tribunal considered not to be undermining) whilst the names he called his female colleagues were ‘pet’ names and as such, demeaning and infantalising.

Mr Hartley defended his actions as ‘banter’ and claimed that he was a victim of the ‘me too’ movement and that his colleagues had conspired against him in a witch hunt.  This argument was rejected by the Tribunal.

Following the Hartley case, last week the Tribunal also held (in the case of Lacatus v Barclays Execution Services Limited) that referring to women as ‘birds’ is ‘plainly sexist’ and that even using the term as a joke is foolish; and that it would be foolish to think that anyone would find the remark funny.

Employers (regardless of size) are vicariously liable for the actions of their employees.  S. 109 (4) EqA provides a statutory defence to a discrimination claim which is available to an employer if it can demonstrate that it took all reasonable steps to prevent employees from doing “that thing” or “anything of that description” – being unlawful acts of discrimination.  This includes the need for ‘thorough and forcefully presented’ training and updates which should be regularly delivered to all employees – not just HR teams!

All employers should be running regular equality and diversity training as one of the essential elements of their commitment to the development of a positive culture of dignity and respect.

For details of our CPD accredited inhouse training, contact Claire Brook.

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