Employment tribunals that focus on potential discrimination cases are not unusual, but one recent example really caught my eye.

A jewellery company lost an age discrimination case, in which a former long-standing member of its sales team was awarded £63k. The employee who won the case had a nickname at work: his colleagues called him ‘Gramps’.

In addition, when he turned 60 his key sales accounts were given to the head of sales and there were also reports that some of the firm’s customers described him as ‘old fashioned’, ‘long in the tooth’ or having a ‘traditional approach’, which did not fit with their business needs.

The tribunal overturned the company’s argument that the nickname was not intended to be hurtful, but was just well-meaning workplace banter. The tribunal also said that the comments from customers, which contributed to the employee’s dismissal, were based on ageist attitudes.

This case demonstrates the importance of keeping an eye on nicknames and checking whether or not they are linked to any of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, which include (among others) gender, sexual orientation and race as well as age. Although this employee did not make a formal complaint about the nickname prior to the hearing, the business should have spotted it and dealt with it.

Another useful learning for employers is to think about how this business could have approached things differently to avoid the problem. If the staff member was in fact not keeping up, or was out of step with customer’s needs, then this should have been addressed through performance management and possible training. A paper trail showing what the business did to manage the situation would have made all the difference.

This was undoubtedly a difficult situation, but if the company had nipped the problem in the bud I’m sure this outcome could have been avoided.

About the author: Jeremy Harvey is head of employment and HR at Coodes’ Liskeard office. You can contact him on 01579 325794 or by email.