An Employment Tribunal has dismissed a claim that an employer discriminated against the only female member of its leadership team by talking about football all the time. In Liebenberg v DS Smith Packaging Ltd the employee argued that she was regarded as ‘not being one of the lads’ because she could not take part in their sporting discussions over boozy dinners.
The Tribunal did point out that the gender imbalance in the leadership team was ‘unacceptable’ – although that is not the same thing as ‘unlawful’ – but it rejected her claim.
The real reason for her dismissal (with less than two years’ service) was the employer’s genuine concerns with her leadership style. In fact there was no undue emphasis on football in conversations within the leadership team and the dinners were rather sober affairs with participants generally having about half a bottle of wine each.
The issues raised in the case are real enough, however. Too much emphasis on joining in with corporate social activities can certainly amount to indirect discrimination if these are focussed on the interests of the majority. A ‘laddish’ culture could also help persuade a Tribunal that direct discrimination lay behind a decision on dismissal or promotion. This case may have failed on the facts, but that does not mean that employers can afford to ignore the culture they create.