The idea of discrimination claims immediately conjures up an image of the corporate world, with employees filing complaints against large organisations. It is relatively rare to hear of cases in the hospitality and leisure industry being brought against individual members of staff.
Despite this, Bristol landlady Wendy Buck recently hit the headlines after being ordered to pay £1,500 compensation to Michael McDonagh, a Traveller, who she was caught on video refusing to serve. This news has shown that discrimination claims can happen in all sectors, and businesses must prepare accordingly.
Particularly in the hospitality and leisure sector, the sometimes boisterous atmosphere and colourful language used in pubs and bars can act as a catalyst for situations which may result in discrimination claims being filed against an employer or employee.
It is important to note that there is more than one type of discrimination claim, depending on how the individual has been treated. Direct discrimination, as in the case of Mrs Buck and Mr McDonagh, is where a person has been treated in a particular fashion by someone because of their age, race, gender or sexual orientation; or indirect discrimination, where a policy, practice or procedure which applies to all employees has an adverse effect on an individual or group because of their protected characteristic, such as race, sex or age.
In addition, there are also harassment claims, where people feel targeted by an offensive environment; or victimisation, where somebody has given evidence in another case or raised a grievance and has subsequently been discriminated against.
Despite the number of different types of discrimination claims and the various settings and situations through which they may arise, there are always appropriate ways to act and tools that employers and employees can utilise, even if they do not necessarily have the back up of an in-house legal team.
In the case of Mrs Buck and Mr McDonagh, a simple procedure towards managing challenging customer behaviour would have been helpful. It is mentioned that the customer asked Mrs Buck 18 times if the reason he was refused service was because he was a traveller; she admits on the final time that his being a ‘Traveller’ is the reason.
Persistence is key here and if she had continued to remain polite, without discussing the personal circumstances around her decision to refuse service, the likelihood of a discrimination claim would have been drastically reduced.
In a case such as this, compensation would have been awarded as a result of ‘injury to feelings’ and there is a sliding scale up to £42,000 regarding how much is to be paid. £800 is at the lower end of the scale, however if there had been violence involved, this sum could have been much greater.
Whilst a court order to pay compensation of any amount is unlikely ever to be welcome news, for employees in the hospitality and leisure sector, the effects can be more than financial. There is always the potential for loss of job and with it comes the additional stress of having to find another position, being out of work and potentially losing other benefits, such as pension entitlements. There is also possible reputational damage to the venue involved.
So, what can businesses do to protect themselves from discrimination claims? The Advisory, Conciliation and Advisory Service (ACAS) offers a number of accessible courses for both employers and employees on a range of topics including bullying and harassment, disputes and mediation, and equality and diversity, which can prove extremely useful in the workplace. Additionally, being able to prove that staff members have attended such courses can serve as part of a potential defence in the event of any claims being made.
General rules around workplace communication can be useful and all employees must be exceptionally careful with sentiments and views expressed in written material which could be used against them. The same approach applies with social media, where criticising customers or responding inappropriately could potentially land employees in hot water.
All employers should ideally have company policies in place relating to written and online communication, as well as social media, which are agreed with all employees at the start of their employment. These stipulate what can and cannot be done and the steps to take if employees are being pressured into engaging with customers online.
In any case, claims do happen and generally, acting as quickly as possible is advisable. Employers should respond to the people making the allegations swiftly, exploring whether the dispute can be settled out of court, before matters escalate.
In the event that a claim does end up in court, the ability to provide suitable evidence is invaluable. Preserving text messages, emails and written communications can form part of a strong defence. Even CCTV footage can be used in court and installing cameras around premises could be a wise move for businesses, as long as appropriate signage is shown around the premises.
The case of Mrs Buck and Mr McDonagh should serve as a reminder for all businesses, particularly those in the hospitality and leisure sector; a claim can arise at any point and having policies and procedures in place should the worst happen would be a wise move.