A park ranger sacked for asking a black colleague if he ‘put polish’ on his legs has won £40,000 compensation after a judge ruled that skin colour is a ‘fact of life’.
Michael Farmer said he was branded racist and even falsely accused of being a member of the British National Party after making the comment.
Lambeth Council sacked him under its ‘zero tolerance’ policy on racism after two disciplinary hearings.
But employment judge Lindsay Hall-Smith has ruled that he was unfairly dismissed, saying: ‘An individual’s race or colour is a fact of life. It does not follow that alluding to such matters to or in the presence of the individual concerned necessarily involves racism or less favourable treatment of the individual.’
The judge, sitting at the Croydon Employment Tribunal, described how an incident on May 7, 2008, had led to the dismissal of 52-year-old Mr Farmer.
He said there was ‘a significant amount of banter exchanged between the staff about a black member of staff, Dwight Parker, who had arrived at work wearing shorts for the first time in the year’.
The judge said the switch to shorts ‘usually provoked humorous comments’, and one woman, Diane Nash, even wolf-whistled at Mr Parker when he arrived.
Mr Parker claimed he heard Mr Farmer say: ‘Dwight, what are you doing putting polish on your legs?’
When he realised that Mr Parker was ‘not the least amused by his comment’, Mr Farmer followed it up by saying: ‘Well, I have to use sun tan lotion if I want a tan.’
In an email to his boss, Mr Parker wrote: ‘I was really shocked when I heard what he said so I just looked at him and kept quiet.
I strongly believe Michael Farmer was being rude and disrespectful in a racially motivated way.
He requested a ‘full-scale investigation and disciplinary action’.
Mr Farmer told the council: ‘As is the tradition when a male colleague switches from wearing long trousers to shorts a certain amount of badinage ensues (last year when I was issued with new shorts there were cat calls and requests to turn the glare down from fluorescent legs).
‘I have enjoyed a joke with Dwight on numerous occasions in the past. If I have offended Dwight this time then I can but apologise most sincerely.’
But Mr Parker said he would not accept any ‘informal arrangements’ and after a two-day internal investigation, Mr Farmer was told that the allegations had been upheld and he was guilty of gross misconduct.
Mr Farmer, a married father of two from Catford, South-East London, carried on working for four months but was finally fired after a second disciplinary hearing chaired by council official Kyron Peters-Bean, whose title is Head of Resilience, in September 2008.
Its report concluded that ‘the most concerning aspect of the investigation’ was claims by two other rangers that ‘this was not the first time Michael Farmer had made statements of this nature’.
But the employment tribunal found no evidence that Mr Farmer had made racist comments before.
The judge said: ‘The tribunal found it disturbing that the prejudicial conclusions of the investigatory process appeared to be founded upon allegations which had never surfaced during the interviews.’
The tribunal found that Mr Peters-Bean was not a ‘convincing’ witness and was ‘evasive’ when cross-examined about how much he had taken into account Mr Farmer’s alleged membership of the BNP.
The judge said: ‘We were driven to the conclusion that the disciplinary hearing failed to maintain an objective approach to the serious allegation against the claimant.
‘The disciplinary panel had made up its mind that the claimant was going to be dismissed. . . and failed to give any consideration to any other sanction.’
Mr Farmer, who has previously set up a black youth community football team, said the idea he was racist ‘was the antithesis of what I stand for’.
“What chance do I have as a middle-aged man getting another job in a recession?’
A Lambeth Council spokesman said: ‘We have a responsibility to take grievances from our staff seriously and investigate them rigorously, but we accept the ruling of the tribunal.’