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University staff using 'grapevine' to aid discrimination

16 June 2006 | last updated: 15 December 2015

Senior staff in universities who use informal communication 'grapevines' to exchange gossip and distorted personnel information contribute to discriminatory policy and should 'hang their heads in shame' according to UCU. University staff using 'grapevine' to aid discrimination should 'hang their heads in shame'

Roger Kline, head of equality and employment rights for UCU was commenting after Brunel University made an out of court settlement to Mr Harinder Bahra, a former Director of Marketing at the university, resulting from a victimisation claim.

Mr Bahra, one of few black and ethnic minority senior staff in the sector, was summarily dismissed by Brunel in 2003 after a successful 14 year career in higher education and found himself unable to secure similar employment. He successfully claimed he was victimised because he made a claim of race discrimination in his previous workplace.

When he joined Brunel, Mr Bahra had an outstanding claim for race discrimination against his former employer, the Southampton Institute (now Southampton Solent University) and this was settled out of court some time ago.

After informing the university, Mr Bahra was dismissed amid claims that he 'failed to develop positive sets of relationships with professional and senior staff' and could not 'meet deadlines'. These were areas of his work for which he had been specifically praised by Southampton Institute and they featured in his references. But when Brunel submitted a defence against Mr Bahra's claim of victimisation, in an employment tribunal, it was found that the Southampton Institute had sought to delete these elements from the reference.

The tribunal found 'evidence of some degree of cooperation or collusion' between the two institutions over the reference. On whether there had been discussions between senior people at the two institutions, it concluded: 'Plainly there had been'.

Mr Bahra's line manager suggested, in evidence, that a key reason for Mr Bahra's dismissal was a poor quality marketing strategy he had produced. But he had initially congratulated Mr Bahra on producing 'such a comprehensive document', and a marketing expert had praised it.

Professor Steven Schwartz, former vice chancellor of Brunel University, was criticised for the 'deeply unfair treatment' meted out to Mr Bahra. Brunel University were refused leave to appeal against the Employment Tribunal decision finding of victimisation. On Tuesday 13 June, the day that Mr Bahra was due to be back in court to quantify his victimisation payment from Brunel, the university made an undisclosed out-of-court settlement reported by the Times Higher Education Supplement as 'well into six figures'.

Roger Kline, head of equality and employment rights at the University and College union (UCU) said: 'Mr Bahra is a highly talented professional of great integrity and many believe he was destined for a senior post in the sector. For him to be victimised because he brought a claim of race discrimination is a disgrace to UK higher education. That someone who has acted ethically can have their successful career damaged in this way - by gossip and prejudice to this end, exchanged on the senior staff grapevine - should set alarm bells ringing across the sector.

'Those responsible for his treatment at Brunel University and Southampton Institute and for excluding him from senior positions elsewhere should hang their heads in shame. This case cries out for further justice and UCU will be seeking discussions at the highest level to address this and prevent other university or college staff being discriminated against in this way.'

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