Race victor: my work 'nightmare'

November 9, 2006

Tribunal rules in favour of former university employee who was 'frozen out' of her team and whose cries for help were 'largely ignored'. Phil Baty reports

Thulasee Jayatilaka would often sit in her car outside her office at Canterbury Christ Church University and cry at the thought of having to endure another day at work.

Ms Jayatilaka was the victim of racial discrimination and was ostracised by colleagues. Her experience culminated in her bringing a successful tribunal case against the university.

Few higher education employees will have experienced an ordeal as painful as Ms Jayatilaka's.

But what makes her tribunal case so pertinent and powerful is that it lays bare her experience for all to read.

"The workplace started to become a nightmare place to go," she told the Ashford Employment Tribunal. "I was treated like dirt."

The tribunal was convinced by her compelling account, and agreed that Ms Jayatilaka had suffered racial discrimination.

She was forced into mundane jobs, shunned by colleagues and was left having to seek counselling when her "cries for help" were largely ignored by senior colleagues, tribunal chairman Lincoln Crawford said in his judgment.

The tribunal also found that Ms Jayatilaka, a senior computing officer, was "constructively dismissed". She was forced to resign after being prevented from undertaking the challenging work she had been recruited to carry out.

In a 41-page judgment, Mr Crawford, who is a race adviser for the Home Office, concludes: "This is a sad and desperate case where the (university) did not have the necessary skills in place to deal with a situation, which was bad for Ms Jayatilaka as the employee and disastrous for it as the employer."

The size of her payout will be confirmed at a later hearing.

Ms Jayatilaka, who is of Sri Lankan origin, joined Christ Church - a Church of England foundation that says its work is "underpinned by Christian values and principles" - in early 2003 on a two-year contract as senior computing officer in the management information systems (MIS) department.

She was brought in to help implement a major new finance, personnel and payroll system, called Agresso. But things turned sour quickly.

She received inadequate induction support from a colleague, database administrator Elaine Hopkins, who did "not appear to go out of her way to support Ms Jayatilaka", the tribunal said.

She was forced into "mundane jobs", was excluded from the main project work and was largely shunned, socially, by colleagues, the tribunal heard.

When a permanent job became available, Ms Jayatilaka's application was rejected. Two white candidates got the two jobs available. The tribunal said that Ms Jayatilaka had been given no time to prepare for interview and was subjected to a technical ability test by two staff "who had effectively frozen (her) out of the MIS team".

"In our view, she was not treated fairly or objectively," Mr Crawford said.

"There is no other conclusion we can reach but to infer from the evidence that Ms Jayatilaka was refused the post because of her race."

MIS manager Philippa Spratt pressured Ms Jayatilaka to take a different post in the personnel department, which she declined. She was then "picked on for the slightest mistake", the tribunal heard.

Complaints to Peter Rands, director of computing services, were largely unheeded.

"She saw Dr Rands on more than one occasion, and was effectively crying out for help. He made no effort to try and sort out the problem... our firm conclusion is that, had Ms Jayatilaka been white, Dr Rands would have treated her very differently by taking her complaints more seriously," Mr Crawford said.

In July 2004, Ms Jayatilaka was informed that her fixed-term contract would not be renewed beyond its expiry in January 2005. She raised a formal grievance but resigned in September 2004 before a conclusion was reached.

A Christ Church spokeswoman said: "The university has a record over many years of placing great importance on equality of opportunity and fair dealings with its staff and has policies, procedures and training in place to ensure that, so far as is reasonably practical, there is no discrimination, harassment and victimisation in the workplace.

"The decision of the employment tribunal is of course a disappointment but we note that the tribunal did not find in her favour with regard to her additional claims of victimisation and harassment.

"The tribunal's decision, very unusually, comes almost one whole year after the case actually concluded. The university has now lodged an appeal with the Employment Appeal Tribunal."



'I was treated like dirt'

'Many times, I'd sit in my car crying before going into work'

'I was feeling lonely and stressed due to the workload and attitude of some MIS staff towards me'


'This is a sad and desperate case'

'She... was effectively crying out for help'

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