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Legal Corner: Dyson engineer wins discrimination claim after manager said ‘I don’t like Muslims’

30th Oct 2020
Legal Corner: Dyson engineer wins discrimination claim after manager said  ‘I don’t like Muslims’

(Photo credit: 3D Animation Production Company from Pixabay)

Zeinab Alipourbabaie was an Iranian engineer who was employed by Dyson in 2014, working on a project to design an electric car. Over several months, she believed that she was subject to bullying and harassment from a Senior Technical Project Manager, Kamaljit Chana. Mr Chana, a Sikh, had asked Ms Alipourbabaie in a one to one meeting where she was from, and she had told him that she was from Iran. He then asked her if she was a Muslim, and she replied that she came from a Muslim family.

He told her that he ‘did not like Muslims’, going on to say that they were violent. He also talked about 9/11 and said that his family no longer took flights because they were scared. He went on to say that Pakistani men were ‘grooming our girls.’ Ms Alipourbabaie left the meeting as she felt uncomfortable and shocked.

Thereafter, Ms Alipourbabaie considered that Mr Chana had excluded her from meetings and emails and advised against promoting her. As a result of this treatment, Ms Alipourbabaie resigned and brought claims of constructive unfair dismissal and discrimination on grounds of religion to the employment tribunal.The tribunal heard from Ms Alipourbabaie as well as seven Dyson employees, including Mr Chana.

The tribunal heard that Mr Chana was subject to an internal disciplinary process as a result of the allegations that he had bullied and harassed Ms Alipourbabaie and had been issued with a final written warning. Mr Chana, however, denied the comments attributed to him. The tribunal rejected his denials; they found that Ms Alipourbabaie’s account was both compelling and persuasive, and accepted that she had been discriminated against.

Concerning her claim for constructive unfair dismissal, Ms Alipourbabaie had to show that there had been a fundamental breach of her contract of employment by Dyson, which entitled her to resign at the point that she did. The tribunal accepted that the campaign of bullying and harassment against her was such that it clearly amounted to a breach of her contract, she was entitled to resign in response to it.

Mr Chana is a Conservative councillor for Pinner East, a constituency in North-West London. He has held this position since 2010. After the judgment was published, he was suspended by his party for six months, which is the maximum period permitted. The leader of Harrow Conservatives, Cllr Paul Osborn, stated that the suspension period would allow the party to “investigate further and if appropriate, to take further action.”

Commenting on the tribunal judgment, Ms Alipourbabaie said, “No one should have to endure the pain of harassment and discrimination that I suffered while working at Dyson as a result of the actions of Kamaljit Chana, a man who, as the Tribunal noted, is a councillor. As such he has a public duty not to hold discriminatory views but should set an example being fair-minded and tolerant of all religions.”

This case is a reminder, if one is needed, that inappropriate comments relating to the religion (or indeed any other ‘protected’ characteristic) of an employee are not permitted, and if pursued, will likely lead to successful claims of discrimination and harassment on grounds of religion.

It is, however, also a reminder that despite there being clear protection for employees from this sort of behaviour, it still arises in the workplace. A 2019 survey by recruitment firm Glassdoor found that 55% of employed UK adults had witnessed or experienced discrimination based on age, race, gender or LGBTQ identity in the workplace. It is clear that more needs to be done to tackle such discrimination; what that might be, and whether it might make a difference, is still the subject of much discussion, but perhaps less consensus.

Safia Tharoo
Barrister, 40 Bedford Row, London

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