Conan the librarian faces race challenge

February 25, 2005

When Conan Henry, a librarian at London Metropolitan University, wrote an email describing his employer as a racist "Loony-versity", he could not have predicted the chain of events it would unleash.

The email, which also referred to the university's director of human resources, Lyn Link, as "Lyn Stink", was discovered by Mr Henry's employer after a copy of the text was apparently left lying on a desk. Its contents sparked disciplinary action that led to Mr Henry being issued with a final written warning.

Mr Henry, who is of African-Caribbean origin, thought the matter - which dragged on for more than two years - was finally closed in March last year when an employment tribunal agreed that he had been discriminated against and subsequently victimised for claiming racism.

But in a new judgment, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) this month reopened the case. It upheld the original tribunal finding that Mr Henry had suffered discrimination, but it has questioned whether the disciplinary action against Mr Henry amounted to victimisation.

Mr Henry joined what was then the University of North London in 1994, but he soon ran into difficulties.

He made a complaint of bullying against his line manager, Heather Sneddon, but Ms Link cleared Ms Sneddon and, instead, raised questions about Mr Henry's "attitude to work".

Mr Henry made a number of further informal complaints about colleagues throughout 2001. During that year, he was denied compassionate leave following the death of the uncle who had brought him up.

In October that year he wrote a letter of complaint to Roy Williams, the director of information systems and services, which was copied to the Commission for Racial Equality.

In it, Mr Henry accused the university of failing to deal with his concerns about "racial stereotyping and racism per se".

In December 2001, Mr Henry wrote the fateful email, sent to a friend and legal adviser, which led to the disciplinary action.

The university said that Mr Henry had made a series of allegations against his head of department without substantiating them or following the university's due procedure.

These had "called into question the reputation and good standing of a senior manager of the university", the university found.

Mr Henry had also "strongly implied" a serious allegation of institutional racism against his employer. Again, he failed to substantiate this or follow due procedure, the university said.

The original tribunal found that the disciplinary action amounted to victimisation, because Mr Henry's claims of racism had been made in good faith, and because he was under no obligation to follow the university's due procedure as this was voluntary.

The tribunal said he had been disciplined not for any legitimate offence, but primarily for making allegations of racism in the first place - which he was entitled to do under the law - hence its finding of victimisation.

It is this finding that the EAT has said cannot stand.

In its appeal, the university accepted that Mr Henry had been wrongly disciplined. It said it had mistakenly believed that Mr Henry was contractually obliged to cooperate with an investigation into his allegations of racism when in fact he was not.

But it argued that just because the university had made a mistake, it did not follow that the mistake amounted to victimisation of its employee.

The tribunal will be reconvened.

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