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‘Golliwog’ Comment Was Workplace Harassment

In a telling example of how dramatically times have changed, a kitchen manager who apologised after he mentioned the old ‘golliwog’ label on Robertson’s jam in front of a black colleague has been ruled guilty of an act of harassment by the Court of Appeal.

The manager had used the words ‘golliwog’ and ‘golliwog jam’ in a quiet voice when his back was turned to a female black chef when the subject of the Robertson’s jam logo came up during a discussion about food labelling in the kitchens of a London School of Economics (LSE) halls of residence.

The chef complained to an employment tribunal (ET) which found that the use of the words was ‘unwanted’ and amounted to ‘an isolated act of harassment’. That was despite the tribunal’s findings that the manager had swiftly apologised to his co-worker after the incident and had not intended to violate her dignity or to ‘create an intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive environment for her’.

In upholding the ET’s findings on that issue, the Court noted that the term ‘golliwog’ was ‘obviously racist and offensive’ if used in the presence of a black person. The real issue in the case was ‘why did the manager say what he did? Was it because he knew he had used the word on the grounds of her race, but dressed it up as innocent chat? Or was it for some other reason?’

The manager had himself recognised that the term would be ‘down right offensive’ if aimed at a black person and the Court observed that he had ‘not been truthful’  in repeatedly denying, including before the ET, that he had in fact uttered the word. The ET had been entitled to conclude that ‘the most likely explanation was that the manager had used the word because of the chef’s race’.

The Court concluded: ‘His failure to be truthful about the fact that he had used the term at all, coupled with his own subjective view that any use of the term in the presence of a black person would be offensive, formed an adequate evidential basis for the ET’s finding that the words had been used by him on the grounds of race.’

The Court’s decision will, however, come as little comfort to the chef whose race discrimination claim had been rejected by the ET on grounds of delay. In dismissing her appeal, the Court found that there was ‘ample basis’ for the ET’s conclusion that it would not be ‘just and equitable’ for the claim to proceed.

The effect of the manager’s comments, whilst upsetting, was ‘evidently short-lived’. LSE management had taken firm steps to relieve tensions in the kitchen and matters seemed to have settled down before the chef lodged a formal grievance five months later. Her other claims of race discrimination had been rejected by the tribunal, although she still had a victimisation claim against the LSE extant.