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Who’d want to be a lecturer in today’s classroom!

We often hear “woke” students seemingly taking offence at any opportunity. That in no way diminishes the importance of respect, equality and diversity, but do things sometimes go too far? What about the photographer accused of sexism for asking male Cambridge students to ‘help the ladies’; Kathleen Stock, the philosophy professor at the centre of a row over her views on gender identification and transgender rights feeling compelled to resign as she lacked support from the university…and more.

Once such incident involves a university lecturer and her terminated employment. Was it fair, or simply ‘wokeism’ insomuch as someone perceiving something to be a cause for offence, seems to many to mean it must therefore be offensive?

Dr Annette Plaut had worked at Exeter University for over 30 years before being dismissed. She brought several claims against her employer including unfair dismissal, discrimination due to her sex and race as well as harassment connectable to the same.

She argued that her dismissal was discriminatory because:

  1. her Eastern European Jewish heritage gave her inherent characteristics that affected how she interacts with people and,
  2. as a female physicist in a male-dominated industry, her male counterpart would not have been treated the same way.

This was, of course, disputed by the university who stated that the dismissal was solely attributable to her behaviour towards the students.

  1. In the first incident, Dr Plaut was alleged to have held the student by the neck and shone a light into her eyes (purported to be a demonstration of light saturation).
  2. Another incident involving a second student – she was accused of shouting at him and displaying a negative approach.

The tribunal must be satisfied that there was no ‘less favourable treatment tainted by such discrimination.’ Dr Plaut’s first hurdle was to show a reason why discrimination occurred: it then falls to the employer to show their actions were not discriminatory.

In 900 pages of evidence, Dr Plaut claimed, as the first woman in the department, she battled against unconscious bias. She acknowledged that her “style” meant she was “naturally argumentative” but this was not something she could control, and recognised that she would become loud when discussing a topic she was passionate about. On the other hand, the university argued that the two complaints received from students were enough to warrant dismissal due to gross misconduct. It was also noted that the physics department had diversified and was much more gender-balanced since Dr Plaut had first joined.

The tribunal found that some senior members of staff felt that Dr Plaut had been allowed to get away with unacceptable behaviour for many years: others said that she was a valued member of staff who was not unpleasant. The tribunal also said that while Dr Plaut strongly and sincerely denied that she would shout at people, it was indisputably regarded as shouting by some people.

Despite the assertion that it was unconsciously racist for this to be an issue due to her heritage, those on the receiving end are entitled to perceive it as disturbing if they believe she is shouting at them. As the tribunal said, “it is simply their human reaction to how she is presenting to them.”

The tribunal concluded that the decision to dismiss Dr Plaut was not tainted by race or sex discrimination. The case then turned on the facts of the harassment that occurred during her return to work meeting.

During this meeting, Dr Plaut made a comment that led to her being suspended again. It was a single comment expressing disagreement with the statement of another about the implementation of equality, diversity and inclusion. The tribunal decided that she should not have been suspended for making a criticism. Given that Dr Plaut had always made her discrimination concerns known which had led to her period of absence (triggering the return to work meeting), her further suspension was a detriment that she suffered.

This is what won the case for her. The tribunal found that she had been unfairly dismissed on the grounds of harassment – a further hearing has been scheduled to determine compensation. However, the tribunal has taken account of the fact that her conduct contributed to the dismissal and have decided that her award will be reduced accordingly.

What to take away from this case?

Discrimination can occur in many forms and although the university was able to overcome the race and sex based discrimination hurdles, they fell short on “harassment”.

Many people have their own ideas on what constitutes harassment but the Equality Act 2010 clearly sets out what meets the threshold: click here

The university also fell short due to procedural issues:

  • including the fact that Dr Plaut’s suspension was not lifted after she was sanctioned with a final written warning,
  • the suspension was not reviewed at regular intervals
  • a student was persuaded to complain.

Suspension should only be used as a last resort and be no longer than necessary – it should never be a kneejerk reaction (and becomes even more of a minefield where pre-existing complaints are at play). If necessary to invoke your disciplinary process, seek legal advice when suspension is being considered as an interim measure as this can tip a potentially safe dismissal into an unsafe one.

It is not yet known if the university will seek to appeal. One thing we do know is that everyone is different: some people are easily offended; others are not; some are ‘live and let live’; some will demand action if they feel they have been wronged – it’s a minefield, so always get good legal advice before acting.

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Nikita Shergill

Posted:

Nikita Shergill

Solicitor

Nikita is a Solicitor with the Employment team. She specialises in all aspects of employment law and routinely acts for both private sector organisations ranging from SMEs to multi-national companies and public sector organisations.