A Deutsche Bank employee who accused co-workers of ageism and sexism was told that such behaviour was part of “day-to-day office life” by an employment judge.
Ex-managing director Elisabeth Maugars was suing the finance giant for more than £4million after claiming she’d been made redundant because of a “culture of sexism and ageism” - a culture which reportedly included colleagues nicknaming her ‘Christine Lagarde’ - the President of the Central European Bank – due to them both being French and having grey hair.
Maugars was dismissed in 2020, having earlier been placed at risk of redundancy during the pandemic when finances were stretched. The bank argued that Maugars was at risk of being let go because she had raised significantly less investment than another colleague in the US - £6million compared to £29million.
According to the tribunal, Maugars, 59, argued that there must be “something more” to her redundancy as it was “so perverse and irrational, even heinous”, adding that there was a “boys club” that discriminated against her because she was an older woman.
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But her claims of unfair dismissal failed, with the panel ruling that none of the people involved in the allegations of sexism and ageism were part of her redundancy process.
Furthermore, being nicknamed ‘Christine Lagarde’ was “part of the irritation of day to day office life which occasionally occurs”, said the judge, who added it was “rather silly and probably annoying”.
Dismissing Maugars’ claims against Deutsche Bank, employment judge Bernice Elgot said: “None of those involved with her redundancy, for example, called her by the nickname Christine Lagarde.
“We make no finding that this comparison was offensive or indicates a ‘culture’ of discrimination against older women. It is part of the irritation of day to day office life which occasionally occurs.
“Maugars pursued no formal complaint or grievance about it.
“In summary, the reason why [Maugars] was placed at risk and, following consultation and then a comprehensive search to re-deploy her, was ultimately dismissed was because she was redundant.
“The bank had need of less employees to do the work, however important, complex and demanding and no matter how integral to its GL business, which she did and she was fairly and reasonably selected for redundancy.
“This has been a crushing blow for her but it was not sex or age discrimination.”
‘Deal with it head on... and quickly’
The tribunal might have decided that the jokes made at Maugars’ expense were part and practice of office life, this viewpoint can lead down a very slippery slope, and risks perpetuating an idea that any and all jokes about colleagues are just a bit of banter.
As such, it is crucial that employers do all that they can to prevent this type of behaviour in the workplace.
Hannah Copeland, HR Business Partner at employment law and HR support firm WorkNest, said: “Complaints of sexism should always be dealt with head on. It might feel an uncomfortable topic to have to deal with in the workplace but sexism cannot always be easily identified and can manifest in underhand and manipulative ways.
“Therefore, if an explicit complaint is received or someone is called out then, it must be dealt with quickly and in line with the correct company procedures. First step is for the employee who is offended to call out the behaviour and let the person involved have an opportunity to understand what they did or said and rectify. Not all individuals will realise that their behaviour is offensive so they should have the opportunity to be told and to change.
“If the allegation is more serious or the offended party has been unable to resolve directly then call in an independent investigator (whether that be from an external professional consultancy) or from internal resource.
“If you have a bullying and harassment procedure then use that to guide your investigation. If you do not, then consider putting one in place or go back to the guidance outlined in your Grievance Policy. Depending on the severity of the complaint, you may need to consider suspending the employee concerned with the alleged behaviour or think about whether there are others ways of preventing further unwanted behaviour, pending investigation. Always consult an HR expert.”
Copeland concluded: “Challenging sexism in the workplace starts with educating employees, managers and Directors about the ways in which they can become aware of their behaviour and how their unconscious bias impacts what they think and do in life, and at work, and in turn how that can be perceived by others. Start by defining what sexism actually means in your company – is it a backhanded comment? Is it a silly joke? Is it watching porn at work? Then look at how you can go about developing an open culture of dignity and respect – perhaps you need to rethink your recruitment strategy so that you start to recruit with desired behaviours in mind? perhaps you need to develop your senior managers so they can better role model desired behaviours?
“Critically, understanding what dignity and respect means, and living these values at work, will actively encourage an environment where sexism won’t be tolerated.”
Age discrimination in the workplace
The other glaring issue in this case is age discrimination. Although the panel ruled these alleged incidents did not impact the decision to sack Maugars, these are issues that should still raise alarm bells for any HR leader wanting to maintain a harmonious workplace.
According to Ciphr, more than 1 in 10 adults in the UK (11%) say they feel that their age has been a discriminating factor in the workplace and more than 1 in 20 (5.7%) believe they’ve suffered workplace discrimination based on their age.
Furthermore, statistics from the Ministry of Justice found that 3,668 complaints of age discrimination were made to employment tribunals in 2020, a 74% rise from 2,112 in 2019, which marked the largest rise of any type of work-related complaint.
As CIPD states, age discrimination has been illegal in the UK since 2006, with the law now incorporated into the Equality Act 2010.
Under this act, age is one of the nine protected characteristics covered by equality legislation. Employers and hiring managers should be aware of the risk of age discrimination occurring in particular workplace activities such as the hiring process.
People of all ages can be affected, including younger and older workers, and the growing number of older people in employment makes this group a key focus.
According to workers’ union Unison, younger candidates experience age discrimination such as being belittled, passed over for jobs or paid poorly because they are young and deemed inexperienced.
Andrew Secker, Employment Lawyer and Partner at Mills & Reeve, previously told HR Grapevine that ageism “does somewhat appear to be the acceptable face of discrimination for many”.
"With the UK’s workforce aging, we have more generations in the workplace than ever before. Employers will need to address this as part of managing a diverse workforce or else risk facing claims of a similar type,” Secker said.