An employment tribunal where a black former scientist at a top engineering firm claimed his career was held back at the company because it had a preference for “blond-haired blue-eyed boys” has resumed in Birmingham after a four-month break.
Randolph Palmer of Kings Road, Stockland Green, claims he was a victim of race discrimination and was unfairly dismissed after being selected for redundancy at Ove Arup, based in Solihull.
The tribunal got underway in March this year but was adjourned until July, reconvening with the cross examination of Mr Palmer by counsel for Ove Arup Paul Gurnham. The company has strongly denied Mr Palmer’s claims.
Mr Palmer was an environmental scientist for almost ten years at Arup and worked in the infrastructure planning Midlands department (IPM) at its Midland campus on the Blythe Valley Business Park.
After five years he was promoted to associate grade but two years later he said his career took an about-turn after he questioned why he had not been promoted further.
He claimed he was “discriminated against almost continuously” by a Caucasian director John O’Jeil.
Mr Palmer said matters came to a head in 2008 during an appraisal with his line manager Debbie Bunce when they discussed his promotion prospects.
He said he was told Mr O’Jeil had said he was “not the right man for promotion”.
When he challenged Mr O’Jeil, Mr Palmer alleged he replied his career had “gone as far as it would go” as the firm had “a preference for blond-haired blue-eyed boys”.
Under cross examination Mr Palmer claimed he was the victim of “institutional racism” at the company as his carer progression was halted and subsequent grievance claims were not taken seriously by the company’s human resources department.
But Mr Gurnham challenged Mr Palmer’s description of Mr O’Jeil as “white Caucasian” saying that he was of Lebanese descent and described himself as a “British Arab”.
Mr Gurnham added Mr O’Jeil denied he had ever made the “blond-haired blue-eyed boys” comment and asked Mr Palmer if he genuinely believed there was “some glass ceiling for ethnic minorities at Arup”.
He replied: “I was informed by Mrs Bunce that every time she put my name forward he (Mr O’Jeil) said I was working at my level and as far as he was concerned I wasn’t the right man.”
When questioned about challenging Mr O’Jeil on the matter, Mr Palmer said: “I said are you aware of my achievements and if so how can I be working at my level?
“He said ‘I will be straight with you Ronnie. You have gone as far as you can go because Arup prefers its blond-haired blue-eyed boys’.
“He said neither myself or himself were British and I, like him, would suffer.”
Mr Gurnham asked Mr Palmer whether Mr O’Jeil had been racially abusive to him in any way and he admitted he hadn’t but said he and Mr O’Jeil discussed institutional racism.
“My response to Mr O’Jeil was that institutional racism was not new to me and was something I had experienced as an undergraduate student and, whilst it was something I had experienced, I was not content to use it as an excuse to bar my progression going forward. I thought he was part of the racism of the company.
“My experience of Arup was if you had issues you raised them. I was not expecting him to tell me it was because of the institutional racism of Arup that my career had not gone forward.”
In April 2009 Mr Palmer produced the first of two diversity papers as a ‘diversity champion’ – documents he used to air wider concerns including allegations of bullying, intimidation and discrimination against Mr O’Jeil (though he was not named) and he told the tribunal he regarded it as the launch of a grievance process.
In response to a suggestion by Mr Gurnham that his diversity paper went beyond his role as a diversity champion and was more about his experience in the firm Mr Palmer said: “I tried to give room for the organisation to see there was an issue, see this was serious and act upon it.”
Mr Gurnham said: “If you felt that Mr O’Jeil had bullied you on the grounds of your race – given how confident you are – surely you would have taken a grievance about such a serious matter.
“You didn’t raise a grievance because you didn’t really think John O’Jeil was discriminating against you racially.
“It was not because you felt you were being discriminated against on the grounds of your race but you felt your career was stagnating and you felt you and your team had been treated badly.”
Mr Palmer, who said he did raise the matter with the firm’s human resources department but alleged he was persuaded not to take out a formal grievance while further investigations took place, replied: “Yes I could have raised a grievance but I was trying to play my part in moving things forward.”