“Effortless communication” is the tagline for Teachers 2 Parents Ltd, a Leicester-based company marketing bulk text message services to schools. Who could fault that as an ambition? And who would disagree that ease of communication between your Sales team and your actual and prospective customers would be integral to your success? And would you in turn not prefer to deal with someone whose name you can visualise and spell and be sure of emailing accurately? Tell you what, why not just guarantee that effortless communication by making sure that all your staff have conventional “English” names? Not by only recruiting people with those names, because that would be discriminatory obviously. No, by making those with ‘foreign’ names use an English equivalent instead. So that will be ok, then?
According to the recent Employment Tribunal case of Jain v Teachers 2 Parents Ltd, and to no-one’s very great surprise, asking employees of ethnic origin to anglicise their names for business usage is capable of amounting to race discrimination. The case was brought by Indian-born Rahul Jain. On his first day of employment as a telesales operative for Teachers 2 Parents Ltd, Mr Jain and other inductees of ethnic origin were asked by the manager to change their name whilst at work to make them more anglicised. It was explained that emails to employees with names that were more difficult to spell had apparently gone missing.
Mr Jain reluctantly agreed to be called Rob. Other Asian employees at the company also adopted aliases: Mehul became Max; Faizal became Fred; Sarbjit became Sally; and curiously, Prankhash adopted the moniker of Terry. When he was dismissed for redundancy, Mr Jain brought a claim for race discrimination as a result of his being required to change his name in this way.
The Tribunal ruled that putting pressure on an employee to change his name to something “English” did indeed amount to direct discrimination. It found that the Company would not have required an employee with a ‘tricky’ Western name (such as Siobhan or Ian/Iain or any one of the multitudinous permutations of Alistair/Alasdair/Alisdair etc.) to change his/her name. Therefore the Asian employees were being singled out for less favourable treatment only because of their ethnic origin. The practice of requiring staff of ethnic origin to adopt an anglicised name could also amount to indirect discrimination as, on similar grounds, it was not thought by the Tribunal to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, i.e. of reducing the number of emails that went astray.
The correct use of an employee’s name is vital to building the employer/employee relationship. Getting that name repeatedly (and perhaps deliberately) wrong, asking him to change his name or imposing a ‘convenience nickname’ could in some circumstances cause a breakdown in trust and confidence, entitling the employee to resign and claim constructive dismissal. If race, sex or any other protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 is a causative factor, as in Mr Jain’s case, the employer may also face discrimination claims. It is no defence that the employer meant no offence with this practice or did it only “for the good of the business”.