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Senior Management justifies alleged racism and homophobia as ‘just banter’

As Anti-bullying week 2016 gets underway, we hear of the deplorable behviour of senior staff when alleged racist and homophobic jokes have been explained as “just banter”.

Nathan Owens, a former Warehouse Operative, has filed an official complaint of harassment regarding race and supposed sexual orientation against his former employer, where he had been dismissed 1st October 2014 for lateness and absenteeism.

Julie Hunter, the Head of HR, denied the “culture of racism.” She did, however, say that banter was common. She told the tribunal, “Jokes go on – they are not directed at anybody. You get them in all work places. The message that kept coming through was that it was banter – nothing malicious. It was harmless banter.” She went on to say that Owens’ colleagues had told her he would “play the race card.” Hunter described him as, “A cocky and manipulative individual with an opportunity to make some money.” She added that all allegations of racism are taken seriously, and that this was the first grievance of its kind.  

Steve Phillips, a director, also stressed to the ET that the comments Mr Owens claims were racist and homophobic were just “banter”.

Owens stated that swastikas were drawn on the walls of the male toilets. Hunter confirmed this, but said they were removed as soon as management were informed.

Owens has told the tribunal that he was referred to as “the token black guy,” and that a fellow employee said “let the black ******** starve” upon hearing the Band Aid single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas Time?’. Within earshot, another member of staff said: “Black men and white women. It’s wrong. It’s disgusting.” While discussing the film 12 Years A Slave, the same employee said: “I wish I could whip those ******* like in 12 Years A Slave.”

Owens says another black co-worker was called “Eddie” after the actor Eddie Murphy. Other claims include the singing of Jessie J’s song Price Tag in camp voice, asking him to bend over, and touching his bottom.

In a statement, Owens said: “The homophobic, racist, paedophile and other sexual abuse or ‘jokes’ continued until just before my dismissal on around a weekly basis. I continued to complain verbally to my managers, albeit on a less frequent basis… when I simply gave up. The reaction was the same – they would ‘get it sorted’ or it would be laughed off. The matter was never ‘sorted,’ other than the Swastikas being removed from the toilets, although they continued to appear on pieces of paper.”

The Managing Director of Euro Quality Coatings, Steve Rosher, reviewing a transcript between himself and Owens said, “Some of the elements in that transcript are ones I would not be proud of. I am happy to apologise for the language I used and I am happy to do so in open court.”

Mr Owens claimed that when he made a complaint to his MD, Mr Rosher responded by asking: “Is there some sort of paedophilia in your family?”

Responding to the allegations, the Rosher said: “I was not accusing you of being a paedophile or having paedophiles in your family. I was trying to understand why it was such a big issue – if you or someone in your family had been a victim of paedophilia. I would not be empathetic to you over lateness or absenteeism, but I would be empathetic if you had been a victim of paedophilia.” Rosher went on to say, “I do not think that banter can go too far. Banter is, by definition, not something that can go too far.”

Mr Owens said his boss had tried to prevent him from raising a grievance by saying: “You have to understand that the minute you start the ball rolling, it does not stop.” Owens states they were “all in on the racist joke.”

EQC deny all the allegations. The tribunal continues.

Check out our page on raising awareness of bullying and harassment and our paper:

17 actions to take to tackle bullying and harassment at work

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