When you’re at the point of claiming plant pots are racist, it’s time to celebrate how fortunate you are that your life is racism-free.
A coloured council worker has won a claim that he suffered racial harassment in a row over an office pot plant – landing taxpayers with a bill for thousands of pounds.
Benyam Kenbata, 34, took legal action after a colleague at Westminster council put the plant on her desk, blocking his view.
He complained to his boss that it was racial segregation and discrimination as it “restricted the ease with which he could hold discussions with colleagues”.
Now, after a two-year legal battle, he has successfully sued the council for racial harassment and victimisation.
Mr Kenbata said: “I genuinely believed I was being unlawfully discriminated against. Working day in, day out with colleagues not effectively communicating with you about work for no apparent good reason is really difficult.”
The row began in December 2013 when support officer Zinnie Denby-Mann put a plant on her desk, opposite capital programme manager Mr Kenbata.
A few months later he complained to his boss.
Westminster’s human resources department denied any racial connotations, saying the problem was simply that the “plant had grown too high”.
In 2015 Mr Kenbata went to London Central Employment Tribunal and made 29 allegations of direct discrimination, racial harassment and victimisation.
It ruled against him, saying it was “quite satisfied that the positioning of the plant and its growth was not an act of direct discrimination nor harassment”.
It found Mr Kenbata “acted in bad faith in making the race discrimination complaint arising from the existence of the overgrown pot plant” and ordered him to pay £10,000 costs. It backed Mr Kenbata on just one count, ruling the discussion about the complaint with his boss, which took place in an open-plan office, amounted to victimisation as it should have happened confidentially.
Mr Kenbata appealed and a judge said the case should be re-examined – and this week the tribunal adjusted its findings, ruling his complaint “was not an act of mischief after all” and “the discussion in the open-plan office was racial harassment”.
This was because his boss’s response to the allegation “was capable of violating his dignity or creating a humiliating environment for him”.
However, the tribunal ruled there was no racial discrimination as they found no evidence “race was an issue in the office”. It said he should still pay £10,000 towards the council’s costs as he had acted “unreasonably” with respect to his other claims. Westminster has spent “well over” £60,000 defending the claims.
Ms Denby-Mann, who now works as a planning officer at Aberdeen council, declined to comment but a relative described the proceedings as “a bit silly” and “rather bizarre”.
Westminster council said it set “the highest standards in treating employees fairly”, adding: “We are pleased the tribunal agreed there was no foundation for a claim of direct race discrimination made against the individual. We note the finding that there was a minor act of harassment, albeit categorised as a one-off incident which fell close to the bottom of the scale in terms of injury to feelings.”
John O’Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “Long, drawn-out tribunals like this are in nobody’s interest. They hurt those involved as well as costing taxpayers. Reform of the system is needed.”