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"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."

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Comments

Fish Oil 23 September 22 09:52

Well done to her for not accepting this behaviour.  I see that she has now started her own employment and immigration law firm.  

Chirpy 23 September 22 10:02

Pointless PR statement from Starling. So clear from this case that there is a culture problem at the top of the legal function. Regardless of the unfair dismissal position, failing to acknowledge emails about ill-health is mean and whether intended or not, gives an impression that the illness is a problem. It costs nothing to be nice. 

Former Thomas Eggar 23 September 22 10:34

partner now a bank GC.

I think that firm had/has an 'award-winning' employment law practice? He clearly didn't attend those internal lunch-and-learn sessions ...

Pangea101 23 September 22 11:01

Well, that's one employer I will never apply to.   Who wants to work in an environment that so toxic.

Average Revolut Enjoyer 23 September 22 11:24

By all accounts, the culture right across the top of Starling is rather toxic.

And I don't mean that in a buzzwordy way, but over the years there has been a steady trickle of nasty (but not abhorrent) stories regarding management's behaviour.

I'm glad this claimant won. The PR response from Starling says all you need to know.

Anonymous Anonymous 23 September 22 11:47

A law firm not knowing employment law. Time to employ more HR staff to run a law firm.

Senior Associate 23 September 22 13:00

Having dealt with Starling on a number of matters, Starling is full of people like the GC, which is why Starling has a culture of 2-hats

Orwell 23 September 22 13:56

Well done to her. It takes a lot of courage to stand up for rights as a disabled person.

I can't tell you how many times I've heard disabled lawyers say they have been treated as through they weren't being team players or pulling their weight simply for asking for adjustments, and often disabled people have to work even harder than others to prove their worth.

Anon 23 September 22 21:04

I have worked at Starling, they have a horrible culture.  Expected to work long hours for below market pay and no bonus. The executive team is clueless, completely out of their depth.

He Said She Said 24 September 22 20:51

‘Considering options for an appeal’.

Um.. you can’t appeal a finding of fact by the tribunal, only a point of law and there doesn’t seem to be a misapplication of the law by the tribunal, so what exactly is the bank talking about?! 
 

Also, they seem to be taking it as a win as they ‘won on 3 out of 5 counts’. They lost on disability discrimination! That means the tribunal were persuaded that they did actually discriminate against this employee. How do they read that as a win?

They need to swallow their pride, back down from their untenable ‘we did nothing wrong’ stance, and taking a really close look at their own attitudes and culture.. May as well, they’ve put it under a magnifying glass now for the whole legal community to look at in detail.. 

Shame 30 September 22 07:17

Starling and the GC look in the mirror. Failing on a human level let alone a HR level 

 

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