We've all heard colleagues being referred to by amusing nicknames at work - maybe even to their face! - and it might seem like light-hearted banter that keeps the wheels oiled.
But if the nickname refer to any of the legally protected characteristics (like age, race, sex or disability) and if things turn sour with a problem dismissal or redundancy, then the nickname can turn out to be very expensive indeed for you as an employer. It can be quoted at the employment tribunal as evidence of illegal discrimination and will increase the amount you have to pay out quite significantly.
In March "Gramps" joined "Yoda", "Borat" and "Sooty & Sweep" in the range of workplace nicknames quoted by claimants to employment tribunals as evidence of illegal discrimination – contributing to large payouts when their claims were upheld. The Bristol employment tribunal has awarded more than £63,000 for age discrimination to a salesperson nicknamed “Gramps” by his younger colleagues and later, after ageist customer complaints, dismissed.
The “Gramps” nickname was given to Mr Dove by the Head of Sales. He referred to Mr Dove as “Gramps” both in person, in front of others and by email. After a customer suggested that Mr Dove was “old fashioned”, “long in the tooth” and had a “traditional” approach out of step with their business needs, some of his accounts were given to the Head of Sales. Mr Dove was then dismissed.
In his claim for unfair dismissal to the employment tribunal, Mr Dove put the nickname forward as strong evidence that the company had ageist attitudes and claimed age discrimination too. In upholding the claim, the employment tribunal took into account the “Gramps” nickname, saying it suggested that ageist attitudes were tolerated in this workplace. The tribunal found that Mr Dove’s dismissal was influenced by the customer’s "discriminatory and stereotypical attitudes" that the employer had adopted without further enquiry: it should have investigated what Mr Dove was actually doing rather than dismiss him based on the customer’s attitude.
The outcome was that the employment tribunal found Mr Dove suffered discrimination in the workplace and was ultimately dismissed because of his age. He was awarded a total of £63,391.
Other examples where workplace nicknames have been used as evidence to bring successful discrimination claims include:
- “Yoda” as evidence of age bias as part an age discrimination claim that the employer had made the claimant redundant because he was close to retirement.
- “Borat”, as evidence in a Polish welder’s race discrimination claim on the basis that the name evoked stereotypes about eastern Europeans.
- “typical Irish” used repeatedly by colleagues to refer to an Irishman working in England. When he made a mistake he was nicknamed “thick Paddy”. He was dismissed after complaining to his employer. The tribunal concluded that he was dismissed “principally because he was an Irishman who would not take Irish jokes lying down”, and a race discrimination claim was found in his favour.
- calling an older worker the “old fogey” or calling a younger worker the “stroppy teenager”.
The cases show how important it is for managers to put a stop to employee nicknames whenever they run the risk of referring to any of the protected characteristics under The Equality Act 2010. It doesn't matter if the employee doesn't complain at the time about the nickname, as Mr Dove didn't. He was even known to refer to himself as Gramps. The intention - such as teasing or joking – is irrelevant too.
The defending employer said in the "Yoda" case said he could see no problem with age-related banter "if everyone is getting on". Wrong. Nip it in the bud and make sure people know why.