LBWF’s latest employment tribunal case: allegations of serious Town Hall racism dismissed, but a sour taste lingers

On 28 March 2024, The Times published the following story:

‘No leading lady worth that label in the golden age of Hollywood would have balked at being called “glamorous”. But Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth were not slaving away in modern local authority offices, where, according to an employment tribunal judge, the term is “undermining” and “belittling”.

The judge, Sophie Park, said that “in a business context … being described as glamorous is potentially inappropriate”. The word “could be taken as undermining or belittling the person being described, making them seem less serious and professional”.

Jeniffer Campbell, a barrister and former beauty pageant winner, alleged that her manager… racially discriminated against her by using the term. The tribunal had been told…[her manager] was showing a new col- league [sic] around Waltham Forest borough council in east London, where Campbell worked as a contract lawyer, when she highlighted the “glamour corner” where the former model worked. Council colleagues told the tribunal that Campbell took great care with her appearance and that…[her manager] had previously complimented her. Campbell claimed…[her manager’s] remark was “offensive” and she sued the council. The tribunal rejected the racism claim but it found that use of the word was potentially a breach of employment law’.

At first sight, all of this might suggest that the pantomime season had started early, but delving a little deeper reveals some thought-provoking issues, and demonstrates that neither side in the altercation emerges with much credit.

Contrary to The Times slant, Ms. Campbell’s recourse to legal action was based squarely on the contention that she had been subject to direct discrimination, harassment, and victimisation because of her race, which, she believed, was clearly established by at least 17 separate pieces of evidence – e-mails, alleged interactions with her manager, and so on.

However, when the tribunal examined Ms. Campbell’s claims, it rejected them without exception, concluding:

‘1. The claimant’s claims of direct race discrimination all fail and are dismissed.

2. The claimant’s claims of harassment on the grounds of race all fail and are dismissed.

3. The claimant’s claims of victimisation all fail and are dismissed.’

Thus, while the tribunal judge’s criticism of the ‘glamour corner’ remark might provide Ms. Campbell with a crumb of comfort, there is no hiding the fact that she was on the end of a drubbing.

Reading the tribunal’s overall findings, it would appear that Ms. Campbell’s central failing was that though she asserted many of her discontents at work were caused by racial prejudice, she remained unable to coherently explain the relationship of one to the other.

As an illustration, when the tribunal evaluated some of the e-mails that Ms. Campbell believed were indicative of racism, it concluded, amongst other things:

‘We first considered whether these emails amounted to harassment. They were unwanted conduct because the claimant was upset by what she perceived as public criticism. Having reviewed the emails in question we cannot see any basis for concluding any unwanted conduct was related to race. The emails are all about work matters and the provision of legal advice. The harassment claim fails because there is no basis for finding the unwanted conduct was related to any protected characteristic’. 

Turning to LBWF, it appears unambiguously to be the injured party, the object of unfounded allegations.

Yet the evidence presented to the tribunal paints a rather less sympathetic picture.

To begin with, it is important to underline that defending this case must have cost LBWF a large sum of public money. 

Ms. Campbell was an agency worker, not a full-time employee, and her case to the tribunal cited LBWF, primarily, but also three other respondents, each concerned with finding and managing her placements, and this introduced complications.

The upshot was that LBWF had to fund, first, its share of compiling a respondents’ bundle which ran to a massive 5,255 pages, and, second, representation at a whole string of meetings, not least six preliminary hearings, plus the main hearing itself, the latter on its own stretching to an extraordinary nine days.

With this in mind, it is relevant to ask whether LBWF could have done more to avoid such an expensive outcome in the first place.

Ms. Campbell joined LBWF in December 2018, and it was soon evident that she found aspects of her work and conditions taxing. In April 2019, she had fallen out with a colleague, and by the summer was clearly unhappy about the way that she was being managed. Moreover, the following year, appraisals noted that she ‘had not integrated well’, and ‘There had also been some complaints from clients’, with the tribunal later accepting that ‘issues’ with Ms. Campbell’s ‘performance’ were in fact ‘long standing’.

Yet despite this history, senior officers seemed loath to take decisive action. Indeed, it was not until Ms. Campbell’s manager reported being ‘at breaking point’, and protested ‘this is madness’, that they finally moved to terminate Ms. Campbell’s contract.

Of course, Ms. Campbell on occasion may have been challenging, but because of her status, she had few employment rights (for example, she could be sacked with one week’s notice) so it seems reasonable to conclude that more engaged and thoughtful leadership, exerted earlier, well could have prevented much of what eventually transpired, and indeed would have benefited all of the main protagonists, including Ms. Campbell herself.

It might be asked, too, given the alleged history of client dissatisfaction, whether Ms. Campbell was a good fit for the job in the first place, and whether LBWF had conducted sufficient due diligence before her appointment.

One final footnote. The comment that Ms. Campbell’s manager made concerning ‘glamour corner’, as noted, has attracted considerable attention, but needs qualification.

The tribunal accepted that immediately after realising her words had caused offence, Ms. Campbell’s manager had apologised, and in her evidence, she added that, at the time, she was mortified. Further, it emerged that when she had previously complemented Ms. Campbell on her appearance, the latter had been pleased enough to reciprocate with a present.

Finally, as regards the allegation that the comment was racist, the tribunal commented:

‘We considered whether being referred to as glamourous could be said to be related to race. Having done so we do not find that is the case. There is nothing inherent in being described as glamourous that is related to race. The claimant also did not provide any coherent explanation about why she viewed this comment as being related to her race’. 

Given that Ms. Campbell’s manager has been named in the media, it might be expected that LBWF’s well funded PR machine would make these additional facts public.

Yet, as far as can be ascertained, up to now it hasn’t.

 What does that say about ‘valuing staff’?

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