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Afro-Caribbean BT worker wins £20,000 racial harassment claim after manager said there were not many black swimmers ”because of class”

Makbool Javaid, Partner - Simons Muirhead Burton

In Ms F Alexandre v Openreach Limited Ms Fignola Alexandre – who is Afro-Caribbean heritage and moved to America from Haiti as a child – began working for BT in a graduate role in September 2016. In August 2019 she began a new role as an industry engagement specialist, with an agreed salary of £38,000 per year.

She reported directly to Mr Warner and was recruited at the same time as two other women – one of whom, Bernice Iyanda, is also black.

After settling into her new job, the tribunal heard Ms Alexandre became ‘anxious’ due to the upcoming expiration of her working visa.

In early-December Mr Warner raised Ms Alexandre’s concerns about her visa, at her request, to more senior managers.

However, during a call at around the same time Mr Warner also made a joke about Ms Alexandre being ‘deported’.

Although at the time neither she nor Ms Iyanda – who was also on the call – reacted to the comment, Ms Alexandre told the tribunal she felt ‘shocked and humiliated’.

In late January 2020 Ms Alexandre, Mr Warner, Ms Iyanda and another white male colleague travelled to Belfast in Northern Ireland on a work visit.

The tribunal heard the group went out for dinner together one evening, during which Mr Warner was said to have suggested the absence of top-level black swimmers was due to ‘class’.

In her evidence to the tribunal, Ms Alexandre said the conversation arose after she explained she ‘could not swim’ and did not like swimming ‘because of her hair’, which she said was a common reason not to swim in the black community.

She says Mr Warner then contributed, saying, ‘I thought it was because of class’.

Mr Warner denied saying the lack of professional black swimmers was due to ‘class’ – but told the tribunal he had referred to a tweet about black American Football players being unable to swim. He stated the NFL tweet referred to some top athletes coming from underprivileged backgrounds, where swimming was not encouraged or simply was not available.

Ms Alexandre and Ms Iyanda were ‘very offended’, it was heard, and took his comments to mean black people were of ‘low class’.

In her evidence, Ms Alexandre referred to historic racial segregation in the United States, mentioning civil rights activist Rosa Parks and ‘pools being drained if a black person had swum in them’.

At the end of January Ms Alexandre wrote to Mr Warner saying she felt she was not performing well in her role and felt ‘judged’.

After consulting senior managers, Mr Warner told her he may need to put her on a coaching plan which, if it didn’t lead to a performance improvement, could ultimately result in her dismissal.

Three days later she went on sick leave due to anxiety and stress.

The tribunal heard the grievance investigation later ‘excused’ Mr Warner’s comments and Ms Alexandre’s appeal was also dismissed.

However, Employment Judge Hilary Slater ruled both the deportation and the swimming comments amounted to harassment.

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