Should You Ever Sue Your Boss for Discrimination? - as published in the Telegraph
Former police officer Carol Howard has won £37,000 from the Met, after two years fighting her case against racial and gender discrimination. A victory, yes, but hard won. So is it ever worth suing your boss? Radhika Sanghani asks the legal experts.
Former fire arms officer Carol Howard has just won a £37,000 pay out from the Metropolitan police after being discriminated against for her sex and race.
It’s a great example of justice being served.
Except for the fact that it comes after two gruelling years, during which Howard was arrested three times over a range of allegations (including accusations of assaulting her ex-partner, which have now been dropped).
She claims these arrests were motivated by revenge and is still trying to clear her name over a number of matters, including witness intimidation and threatening to damage property.
And that's before you even consider the public interest the case has aroused.
So it’s no surprise that on winning the pay out Howard said: “Today is not a day for celebration. I have been put through a two-year ordeal in which I have been bullied, harassed and victimised simply because of my gender and race.
“Even today I am still having to fight to clear my name, in this regard, as part of this ongoing nightmare. I did not willingly seek this employment tribunal but had no other option [than] to pursue it after various attempts to resolve the situation internally with the police proved fruitless.”
Is it worth the stress?
Howard’s experience brings up the long-standing question of whether an employee should ever sue their employer for discrimination. Is it really worth the stress, time invested and risk of ‘bullying and harassment’ – especially when you might be spending more on your legal fees than you’ll be winning back?
Tina Wisener, a partner at employment law firm Doyle Clayton Solicitors, tells me: “I would say that on many occasions that it’s not worth it, because unless you have suffered really poor treatment the stress of a tribunal can be even worse than the experience you have suffered at work. Litigation isn’t pleasant.”
The money can be meagre
It’s a blunt statement from a lawyer who specialises in bringing discrimination cases against employers. But Wisener’s experience means she has seen the effect that a lawsuit has on those bringing it. “Often people say to me that the process made them feel like they didn’t win. It's very adversarial,” she says.
“It’s a really difficult call. I say to people, 'you need to understand it can be expensive'. A case can take six, nine, 10 months, or even longer. Sometimes you can end up paying more in legal fees than in damages. I would never sue on a principle. Don’t do it just to try and prove a point.”
In sex discrimination cases, the median financial award is £5,900 in Britain and the mean is £10,552, according to the Tribunal Statistics. Alex Heshmaty, founder of website Sue My Boss, thinks this is something people really need to take into consideration.
“An average claim is about £3,000,” he says. “But you might only see £100 or a few days’ pay. Sometimes, it’s simply not worth it. You need to do your research as to whether your type of claim is financially viable or not.”
Will it ruin your career?
Another huge factor to consider is the effect that suing an employer will have on your future career. Wisener says: “It shouldn’t be damaging to your career and in most cases, it’s not. Even though a tribunal is public, no one knows about it. But truthfully speaking, if it’s a high profile case or a small industry, it can be risky.”
Howard’s case shows the effect that that a high profile case can have on a claimant - not just in terms of what it might do in the future to her career, but on the amount of added stress it has brought her. Heshmaty says this is also common with whistleblowers, or those a company might view as 'difficult'.
“If someone’s seen as a troublemaker by an organisation they will suffer from it,” he explains. “I think it can hinder people’s careers. It’s an emotional decision as well as a practical one.”
In a small company or organisation, it can be particularly challenging, he says.
“I think at the end of the day once you have raised a claim, if it’s a small organisation and you have to deal with the [relevant person] on a regular basis, it’s going to be difficult to have a working relationship after that.
“The theory is you can make a claim, get some money and keep your job. But the reality is your life becomes very difficult. In smaller businesses it’s only worth it if you’re thinking of leaving anyway. In a larger organisation, or the public sector, I think that’s fine because you can move to a different department.
"Often what happens is people are on the way out anyway and may bring a claim knowing they’ll leave, and get a settlement.”
Why settlements are preferable
Wisener explains that settlements are generally the goal for someone trying to sue their boss, as it means they can gain a financial pay out without having to go through the stress that a tribunal brings.
“If a case is settled they never reach court, or a public forum. There are confidential provisions, which mean people can move on quickly and find another job without any concerns,” she says. It means that settling is particularly helpful if your case is high-profile and could end up in the public domain.
Many people may not think the risk of their claim being publicised is relevant, especially if they’re not well-known. But Wisener stresses that this isn’t the case. Yes, claims relating to high-profile figures, such as a recent unfair dismissal claim against Lord Sugar, often come out. But, so too, do claims about sexual harassment - even if no-one famous is involved. Sometimes it just takes an accusation against a relatively well-known firm for it to be thrust into the public eye.
Of course, this can sometimes have a benefit of encouraging the employer, or company, to reach an agreement quickly, before a tribunal. It’s why Wisener is “amazed” that the Met police didn’t settle Howard’s claim outside of court.
So, should you sue?
With all the drawbacks of suing your employer, it can seem like something to be avoided. But Wisener says that all is not gloom and doom – approximately 70 per cent of employment discrimination claims result in a settlement. It’s why she suggests “if someone has suffered discrimination they should take advice, maybe from the Citizens Advice Bureau to assess whether they have a claim.”
Heshmaty adds that for people who are really worried about the financial implications, there is always the possibility of doing it without legal help.
“You don’t actually ever have to seek legal advice and go to a solicitor yourself as an employee,” he says. “The system has been designed to help employers carry out tribunal claims by themselves. DIY law is on the up.”
Of course, doing this may ease the financial pressures of suing but it won’t stop the stress. If anything, it will increase it. At the end of the day, deciding whether or not to sue your boss is going to be a personal choice. But it goes always come down to one major point:
“Whether you want the stress,” sums up Heshmaty. “Because suing your employer is obviously going to be quite an ordeal, whether you win or don’t win.
"It might not necessarily give you the best outcome.”
This article, featuring comment from Tina Wisener, was originally published in the Telepgraph at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-business/11072513/Met-officer-race-discrimination-case-Should-you-sue-your-boss.html
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