The London Fire Brigade has been accused of being “institutionally misogynist and racist” following the publication of a damning report that has exposed a toxic culture with the findings being described as “abhorrent” by London Mayor, Sadiq Khan.
The report follows the suicide of a trainee firefighter, Jaden Matthew Francois-Esprit. The report is being likened to the 1999 Macpherson inquiry findings against the London Metropolitan Police following the murder of Stephen Lawrence. We know though that the Metropolitan Police is still dealing with serious racial and sexist issues. Whilst Sadiq Khan has described these findings against the London Fire Brigade as a “watershed moment”, is it really? Will there be change now in light of the 24 recommendations made? The Fire Brigade Union has said that the concerns coming out of the report have been raised historically. Why does it take a death for racism, bullying and misogyny to be in the spotlight?
4,500 of the 5,000 staff in the London Fire Brigade are firefighters. Only 425 are women and 500 ethnic minorities. The report has found that there are “dangerous levels of ingrained prejudice towards women” and there is an acknowledgment that misogyny has not had the attention it deserves.
In response to the report, the London Fire Brigade has promised to sack staff that it finds to be bullies, racists, homophobes, or misogynists following publication of the report that highlights distressing and prolonged campaigns of abuse against its staff. Equal opportunity policies in the workplace will generally have a statement about there being a zero tolerance policy for discrimination at work. This will also usually be listed as a category of offence resulting in a gross misconduct dismissal also. But these words are meaningless if they do not represent the reality in an organisation.
So bad are the accusations in the report that one female firefighter told the review that you “would have to gouge someone’s eyes out to get the sack… with everything else seen as banter”. Sadly, the relabelling of inappropriate and discriminatory language as “banter” has for far too long been a thing.
Whilst the scale and level of the horrific abuse of London Fire Brigade staff may be considered isolated to large public sector employers, that would be a mistake. Racism and sexism remain live issues in many workplaces across the UK. In terms of public sector employers, this is not just about the London Fire Brigade. Employees from the NHS and BBC are now coming forward with similar concerns. There is a call for a national inquiry into other public bodies.
The human and the long-term impact of bullying and discrimination in the workplace should never be underestimated. That distress is often relived when allegations are reported and investigated, having a detrimental impact on health and careers. In the case of the London Fire Brigade, where abuse and bullying became normalised, over the last 5 years, 6 employees have taken their lives.
An employer is dutybound to look after the wellbeing of its employees. When allegations of bullying or harassment are made, an employee is entitled to active implementation of proper disciplinary procedures. This includes investigating thoroughly those allegations whilst putting in place measures to safeguard the victim. Employment Tribunal takes a dim view of an employer’s failure to take preventative action in these circumstances.
Where multiple allegations are made against one or many individuals, an employer may wish to turn to someone outside of the organisation to lead that investigation.
Where allegations are particularly serious, they may well be reported to the police by the victims. If not and if the victim is at risk of further abuse, an employer may wish to or be bound to report themselves. This will inevitably then impact on how the employment piece plays out.
If this report is not enough to bring about a zero-tolerance report to racism and sexism in the London Fire Brigade, it is hard to imagine what would be. It is a moment for employers everywhere to start to stand by their policies and live their values beyond just paying lip service to them.
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The above is accurate as at 01 December 2022. The information above may be subject to change during these ever-changing times.
The content of this note should not be considered legal advice and each matter should be considered on a case-by-case basis.