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Manager loses dismissal case over laddish 'Nerf gun war' culture

A senior IT professional who took her employer to tribunal for sexual discrimination has lost her case.

Sarah Longman alleged that her company HML Holdings’ had a “laddish” culture, with Nerf gun wars and rubber chickens thrown around the office, contributed to her being made redundant in 2020 after 13 years of service.

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The frequent pranks and boyish behaviour, she said, were part of an overall accepted set of exclusionary behaviours that, she felt, favoured male colleagues.

The tribunal heard from another female employee, however, that the company did not have a laddish culture, and did not treat women less favourably.

As the property company’s head of IT, Longman, the tribunal heard, had previously struggled to handle her team.

She raised concerns to her manager in 2018 about how she should handle mischievous staff; and according to one testimony her team was a source of continuous unrest due to her leadership style.

A year later, she was made redundant, and sued HML Holdings for sex discrimination and unfair dismissal – claims that were dismissed – and a claim of unpaid holiday time that was upheld by the judge.

The case is illustrative of how poor cultural fits can cause strife at work, according to Matt Jenkin, employment partner at law firm Moorcrofts.

He told HR magazine that the case had made for a nuanced decision, adding: “What the case should not be viewed as is a general proposition that a laddish culture in the office is somehow risk free.

“Looking at the decision: it does appear that there are some questions to be asked of the employer as to the conduct of some of its employees. It wouldn’t take much for so-called laddish behaviour to tip over into actionable claims.”

Shakil Butt, founder of consultancy HR Hero for Hire, said in his experience of employee relations investigations very few employees who face discrimination raise it as an issue because of pressure to fit in.

He told HR magazine: “When later this surfaces at a grievance or tribunal hearing, the fact that they did not raise it at the time can undermine their claim. 

“Not raising something does not mean it did not happen just that there was no evidence of it being an issue and raised through the right channels, informally or formally.”

This particular case he added showed the clash between HR’s principles of diversity and organisations having their own ‘culture fit’.

He said: “If the genders were switched with a primarily female team being led by a male manager, I am sure there would be certain areas of shared interest among the women that might feel exclusionary to their male lead. 

“In order to be more inclusive should these norms be challenged?

Every organisation has a culture, and often subsets of cultures, which could be around functionality of the role, shared languages, shared history. Should these be dismantled, or encouraged as the natural consequences of people coming together?

“I have my D&I lens that says conformity is not a good thing – but then my OD lens acknowledges culture is a real thing, that can’t be policed by policies. 

“It can, however, be shaped by role-modelling from the top clarifying how things are in the workplace.”