Date updated:

In the recent Employment Tribunal case of Plaut v Exeter University, a Tribunal reasoned that a lecturer’s behaviour towards students was offensive and handling the complaint wasn’t discriminatory even though her behaviour was associated with her race.

Dr Plaut was employed as a Senior Lecturer at Exeter University for over 30 years. She had been described by colleagues as a ‘marmite’ personality due to her loud and passionate discussions about physics. 

Following complaints from students who had been offended by Dr Plaut, Dr Plaut’s employment was terminated and she brought claims against the University, citing sex and race discrimination, unfair dismissal and harassment and victimisation. Her race discrimination claim was based on her Eastern European Jewish heritage, which she said gave her inherent characteristics (in the way she interacted with people) which were the reasons for the way she dealt with her students.

The University defended the claims stating that Dr Plaut’s conduct towards students was the reason for her dismissal and that her dismissal had nothing to do with her race or sex.

The Tribunal decided that the dismissal of Dr Plaut was unfair. It dismissed Dr Plaut’s claims of race discrimination and sex discrimination, her claim of harassment succeeded. 

On Dr Plaut’s race discrimination claim, the Tribunal explained that if individuals sincerely believed that she was shouting at them, that perception is their reality and the fact that the reason she is (in their perception) shouting at them is her racial heritage, does not make it any the less disturbing for them. The Tribunal said that this was not racism, conscious or unconscious. It is simply their human reaction to how she is presenting to them.

Schools, colleges and universities deal with complaints from students offended by staff on a regular basis. In the main, such complaints can be handled promptly in accordance with complaints and disciplinary policies. Where complaints concern a staff members behaviour which may be associated with their race, religion, belief, sex or a disability (a protected characteristic under the Equality Act) employers become concerned about potential discrimination. 

We are contacted regularly by schools in this situation, they tell us that they have an obligation to their students but that they are concerned about taking what might be considered discriminatory action. 

The decision of the Tribunal in this case is reassuring for employers. Schools, colleges and universities should look at the substance of student complaints, apply their staff behaviour policies and determine whether the behaviour met the expected standard. If the behaviour was genuinely offensive, it should take action.

Getting to the route of the complaint will help employers understand whether the complaint is associated with a protected characteristic under the Equality Act including cultural norms or behaviours. 

Proactive, early action including conciliatory approaches can often resolve less serious, ‘offence’ type complaints.

If a complaint is associated with a disability of a staff member, extra care should be taken on the basis that employers could fall foul of the Equality Act if they treat staff unfavourably because of something arising in consequence of their disability and cannot show the treatment is proportionate. In such cases employers should look to take proportionate steps to protect the safety and welfare of students.