What’s in a (nick)name?

4 April, 2016
by: Cripps Pemberton Greenish

Some may view the use of workplace nicknames as haAge Discrimination - Employmentrmless fun and part of an increasingly common ‘office banter’ culture. Whilst employers want to promote an enjoyable working atmosphere, they should be aware that there is a very fine line between playful exchanges between their employees and discriminatory behaviour.

This fine line has been illustrated in a recent case where an employment tribunal awarded £63,391 to a salesperson who was nicknamed “Gramps” by his younger colleagues. The nickname had been used verbally and in emails for a number of years. The employee did not complain about the nickname and there was even evidence that he had referred to himself as “Gramps” in an email.

Facts: Mr Dove was a long-serving salesperson with his employer (a jewellery manufacturer) until his dismissal in 2015. The dismissal followed the transfer of some of Mr Dove’s key accounts to the Head of Sales. The reason for the transfers was apparently due to the customers not wanting to deal with Mr Dove because he was “old fashioned”, “long in the tooth” and his “traditional” approach was out of step with their business needs. Shortly following the transfer of accounts Mr Dove was dismissed. Mr Dove claimed age discrimination and unfair dismissal in the employment tribunal.

Decision: The tribunal was in no doubt that phrases such as “old fashioned” and “long in the tooth” were references to Mr Dove’s age. Although these views were expressed by customers and not the employer itself, the tribunal said that the employer should have questioned the customers more vigorously. By not doing so, the employer adopted the customers’ discriminatory and stereotypical attitudes. The tribunal also took into account that colleagues referred to Mr Dove as “Gramps” which suggested ageist attitudes were tolerated in the workplace.

Practical Tips: To alleviate the risk of a discrimination or harassment claim, employers should:

  • Provide training for employees to ensure they understand what is and is not acceptable behaviour in the workplace.
  • Have up to date equal opportunities, anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies.
  • Deal with any complaints / grievances from employees regarding unwanted conduct seriously and without delay.