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Meet the team: Catherine Mitchell

cm-halloweenHaving managed to evade the ‘Meet the Team’ spotlight until now, it’s only fair that I should step up for the Hallowe’en slot. I thought it would be apt to share some haunting thoughts of an employment tribunal case brought last year by a pagan witch claiming religious discrimination.

The employee in question believed she was dismissed from her job at a newsagent after she attended a Hallowe’en ceremony. She alleged she was ridiculed for her beliefs as a practising Pagan and that she’d been asked whether she could fly on broomsticks. Her employer, on the other hand, claimed that she was fired after she was caught stealing a magazine and a lottery ticket – they didn’t elaborate on whether they thought she’d been able to predict a big win.

It’s probably fair to say that discrimination claims are among the scariest for employers, not only because of the potential for unlimited compensation, but also due to the frightening complexity of the subject matter. Whilst it’s obviously not possible to batten down all the possible discrimination hatches and avoid risks entirely, there are some sensible steps which employers can take which will minimise the risk of finding skeletons in the attic.

One of those sensible steps is to ensure that all new hires are properly briefed on your organisation’s equality policies, and that they’re clear about their own duty to behave appropriately towards their colleagues and others in their sphere at work. I have acted in a number of cases where an employee has been astonished to find that they are being sued personally in a discrimination case, alongside their unimpressed employer who was alleged to be vicariously liable for the employee’s harassment or victimisation of a colleague.

A second very sensible step is to ensure that all employees are regularly re-briefed on equality awareness – an employer who has a rolling programme, ensuring that every employee attends a refresher session every couple of years, is much more likely to succeed in establishing a ‘reasonable steps’ defence in the face of the type of discrimination claim I describe above. One of our most popular Learning & Development offerings is our one-hour equality awareness session, which can be rolled out across an organisation and is designed to alleviate the nightmares of many a tortured HR soul – please let me know if you’d be interested in hearing more about that.

When I’m not trying to spook my lawyer opponents or driving my colleagues to despair with my crystal-ball punning, I try to live a less wicked rural life surrounded by children and tame animals. I should admit that my inspiration for this piece came from my 10-year old daughter – I’ve just discovered a reference to me riding on my own broomstick in an email she’s sent to her friend. Just don’t get me started on the perils of social media.

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