"Yes doctor, that's fascinating, but get to the point - the bank wants me back at my desk in 10 minutes."
A tribunal has ruled that a bank unfairly treated an asthmatic solicitor who was dismissed after asking to work from home and take time off, due to ill health.
Solicitor Gulnaz Raja was employed as a deputy company secretary at Starling Bank from July 2019.
The employment tribunal was told that there was a "long hours culture" at Starling Bank, and the bank's General Counsel Matt Newman (previously a corporate partner at Thomas Eggar) was "demanding about people being present and on time".
Raja said she was not able to stay in the office beyond her contracted hours, but would log on at home to work later in the evening.
Raja, who is asthmatic, developed a "persistent" cough, which she said was due to the office's cold air conditioning. She emailed Newman to request to work from home, but did not receive a reply.
In December 2019, she emailed Newman to say she had the flu and couldn't work, but again, Newman did not respond. She ended up working on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
In January 2020, Raja informed Newman that she had upcoming medical appointments regarding her asthma. But the GC did not respond, which Raja believed was a way to show he was "not happy" and was "punishing" her.
Later that month, Newman refused a request by Raja to work from home, saying there was a "team culture" at the bank to generally work in the office.
In March 2020, Raja came to work to discuss her health and safety concerns due to the pandemic. However, she was "blindsided" by Newman who called her into a meeting, telling her she was "not a Starling person", and sacked her.
Raja, representing herself, brought claims against Starling Bank and Newman including disability discrimination, unfair dismissal and victimisation.
Newman told the employment tribunal that he felt Raja demonstrated a "lack of ownership" and that her performance was "acceptable but not dynamic", and that she did "not perform" to the level that he expected.
However, the panel found that Raja's "ill-health absences and need to work from home and her likely requirement for further time off...were a material reason for her dismissal."
The tribunal rejected Starling and Newman's argument that Raja's performance prompted her dismissal, holding that "there was good evidence" that Newman "valued employees working long hours in the office."
Newman was "critical" of Raja "for leaving work at the end of her contracted hours," said the tribunal. "That attitude seemed to us in these circumstances to align with an attitude of impatience with ill-health absence".
Newman was also found to have "brought forward the dismissal" when he realised that Raja was going to "ask about adjustments in respect of her medical issues".
And the panel also deemed there to be a "total failure" by Newman to respond to Raja's messages about her ill health, and a failure to express concern or support "on a significant number of occasions" which seemed to "be intended to discourage time off for ill health and working from home."
Raja succeeded on two claims: that she was unfairly treated by the bank because of "something arising from her disability"; and that she was "subjected to a detriment" because the bank and Newman did not hold a meeting to discuss her health and safety concerns, and "instantly" dismissed her.
However, she did not succeed in claims that she was unfairly dismissed; unfairly treated because the bank did not investigate her allegations of discrimination; or that she was "victimised" by the bank.
A spokeswoman for Starling Bank said: "We're pleased the tribunal found in favour of Starling on three of the five counts. But we are, of course, very disappointed in the finding against us on two counts and do not feel it fairly reflects the Starling culture or how we look after our team.
"We are in the process of reviewing the judgment with our professional advisers and considering the position in relation to an appeal."