Who knew that the placement of an office plant could lead to allegations of racial discrimination. And yet, that is exactly what happened in London. Benyam Kenbata alleged to have suffered racial discrimination after he was “segregated” from his work colleagues by an overgrown office pot plant.
34-year-old Kenbata complained he was racially segregated and suffered discrimination because a Westminster council colleague’s desk plant placement blocked his view and made it difficult for the man to effectively communicate with his co-workers. Support officer Zinnie Denby-Mann had placed the plant on her desk, opposite capital program manager Kenbata, creating separation between the two. And so began a two-year legal battle in which Kenbata sought to sue his employer.
“I genuinely believed I was being unlawfully discriminated against,” he stated in an interview regarding his position on the placement of the greenery. “Working day in, day out with colleagues not effectively communicating with you about work for no apparent good reason is really difficult.”
Kenbata reported his concerns to his supervisor months after the plant was given its home. He then approached the London Central Employment Tribunal, making 29 allegations of direct discrimination, racial harassment, and victimization. The entity ruled against him, stating it was “quite satisfied that the positioning of the plant and its growth was not an act of direct discrimination nor harassment.” Furthermore, the tribunal said Kenbata had “acted in bad faith in making the race discrimination complaint arising from the existence of the overgrown pot plant” and ordered him to pay £10,000 costs. The tribunal backed him on only one count, ruling that he had been victimized in an open plan office discussion about the plant that should have been conducted in a confidential manner.
Kenbata appealed the decision and a judge then called for the case to be re-examined. Following the request, the tribunal modified its findings, stating Kenbata’s complaint “was not an act of mischief after all” and finding “the discussion in the open plan office was racial harassment.” The tribunal also stated the man’s supervisor responded to his allegations in a way that “was capable of violating his dignity or creating a humiliating environment for him.” However, it maintained its decision regarding racial discrimination because it found no evidence “race was an issue in the office.”
Kenbata was ultimately shown to have acted “unreasonably” regarding other claims and was made to still pay £10,000. Westminster council defended its position, reporting it maintains “the highest standards in treating employees fairly.” The council had reportedly spent “well over” £60,000 defending itself.
The council has stated, “We are pleased the tribunal agreed there was no foundation for a claim of direct race discrimination made against the individual. We note the finding that there was a minor act of harassment, albeit categorized as a one-off incident which fell close to the bottom of the scale in terms of injury to feelings.”
TaxPayers’ Alliance chief executive John O’Connell commented, “Long, drawn-out tribunals like this are in nobody’s interest. They hurt those involved as well as costing taxpayers. Reform of the system is needed.”