Asthmatic solicitor axed for taking time off wins discrimination claim

Solicitor with asthma who was sacked from £76,000-a-year banking job after taking time off sick and asking to work from home wins disability discrimination claim

  • Solicitor Gulnaz Raja won a disability discrimination claim against Starling Bank
  • Tribunal heard boss Matt Newman valued staff working long hours in the office
  • Mr Newman grew ‘impatient’ with Ms Raja when she asked to work from home
  • Ms Raja, who has asthma, was sacked for working contracted hours in the office 

An asthmatic solicitor who was sacked from her high-flying banking job because she took time off sick and asked to work from home has won a claim of disability discrimination against her former employer.

Gulnaz Raja was criticised by ‘demanding’ boss Matt Newman who ‘valued’ staff working late in the office.

Rather than participate in the ‘long hours culture’ at Starling Bank, Miss Raja – who suffers from asthma – would only arrive five minutes early for board meetings – 40 minutes after her boss.

The tribunal heard that despite Mr Newman regarding long hours as important, she would then leave work at the time stated in her contract.

When the 36-year-old later fell ill, took time off and started requesting to be able to work from home, Mr Newman became ‘impatient’ with her, the hearing was told.

He then fired her from her £76,000-a-year job as deputy company secretary after concluding she was ‘not a Starling person’.

Gulnaz Raja has successfully sued Starling Bank, her ex-employer for disability discrimination after she was dismissed because she wanted to work her contracted hours in the office

Miss Raja will now receive compensation after successfully suing the bank for disability discrimination.

The Central London tribunal heard Miss Raja – a solicitor since 2010 – started work at the bank in July 2019 and passed her probation three months later.

Mr Newman, the chief administrative officer and company secretary, congratulated her on her hard work, telling her he was looking forward to working with with her in the future.

However, he quickly began to grow dissatisfied with her performance.

‘[Miss Raja] said that [Mr Newman] was demanding about people being present and on time and that it was a long hours culture,’ the tribunal heard.

The hearing was told that for board meetings starting at 8.30am, he would be in at 7.45am to set up – but Miss Raja would turn up five minutes before they were due to start.

‘She said she was not able to stay in the office beyond her contracted hours but would log on and work later in the evening,’ the tribunal heard, with the panel noting examples of when she had worked long hours from home were given.

Mr Newman – also a solicitor – told the hearing she showed a ‘lack of ownership’, that her performance was ‘acceptable but not dynamic’ and she ‘did not perform to the level I expected or seem to be grabbing hold of the role and making it her own’.

Chief administrative officer Matt Newman

The tribunal heard that by November, Mr Newman was ‘disappointed’ Miss Raja was showing ‘no interest and aptitude’ in the most complex aspects of her role – although no specifics of Miss Raja’s shortcomings were noted.

The hearing was told Miss Raja had developed a cough due to the ‘air conditioning in the office being very cold’ – and asked to move desks away from a vent, referencing her asthma.

In November she went to see her GP about her ‘persistent’ cough and emailed Mr Newman asking to work from home but received no reply.

On December 16, Miss Raja emailed again saying she had the flu and couldn’t work but was again ignored – as she was for the following week.

Miss Raja then returned to work, working Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

The tribunal heard that in the New Year, Miss Raja informed Mr Newman of two upcoming medical appointments relating to her asthma.

She received no response and told the tribunal this felt ‘punishing’ and showed he was ‘not happy’ with her.

The tribunal heard Mr Newman refused a work from home request later in January saying there was an ‘office’ and ‘team culture’ at Starling Bank to generally work in office.

Employment judges at the London tribunal court (pictured) found partly in Ms Raja’s favour 

The panel was told she arrived at work on March 9, 2020, and asked to speak to Mr Newman to discuss her health and safety concerns regarding the growing Covid pandemic.

But she was invited into a meeting room and left ‘blindsided’ by being dismissed and told she was ‘not a Starling person’.

She took the bank and Mr Newman to the employment tribunal with claims including disability discrimination, unfair dismissal and victimisation.

Ruling that she had been discriminated against, Employment Judge Natasha Joffe said: ‘We considered that there was good evidence that [Mr Newman] valued employees working long hours in the office.

‘He was critical of the claimant for leaving work at the end of her contracted hours. 

‘That attitude seemed to us in these circumstances to align with an attitude of impatience with ill health absence.

‘It appeared to us that the ill health absence and requests to work from home were part of a picture which included Miss Raja working her contractual hours and no more in the office and also a handful of work issues which together led Mr Newman to decide she was “not a Starling person”.’

The panel said ‘a total failure’ to respond to messages about ill health and the failure to express any concern or support ‘on a significant number of occasions’, seemed to ‘be intended to discourage time off for ill health and working from home’.

Miss Raja’s claims of unfair dismissal and victimisation were rejected.

A remedy hearing to decide compensation will take place at a later date.

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