The John Lewis harassment case

Maybe I have this all wrong. It could be that Mr Konstantinos Kalomoiris will one day join the Tolpuddle Martyrs in the pantheon of those who have fought for the rights of working people. Perhaps Billy Bragg will strum an anthem in his honour and the trade unions will stitch his likeness to their gaily-coloured banners; and perhaps a street will be named after him in Islington and a plaque will be unveiled in Transport House, complete with a fiery speech by Tony Benn or Mr Tristram Hunt MP. Perhaps all future members of the British labour force – including my own grandchildren – will give thanks that Mr Konstantinos Kalomoiris decided he could take it no more.

After three slaps on the bottom he took a stand, on behalf of himself and his entire gender. No matter that the bottom-patter (alleged) had worked for 40 years for the firm, with an “unblemished record”. Never mind that she was a 68-year-old woman, who insisted that she had only “touched his back in a caring way, like a mother or grandmother”.

Mr Kalomoiris, 40, has sued the company, John Lewis – a notably tender-hearted employer – for sexual discrimination and harassment; and, as I say, my instincts could be completely out of whack. This could turn out to be a ground-breaking case in the advancement of workers’ rights against the unfeeling boss class. But I sincerely doubt it. It sounds to me like a perfect indication of the levels of barminess now being attained by our system of employment tribunals. The hearing continues, it says at the bottom of the reports, and my first thought is how mad, how incredible it is that this poor man’s grievance – whatever it really is – has come to court.

The hearing continues, while across the country thousands of similar hearings drag their weary length before the matchstick-eyelid tribunals of Britain. Millions of man-hours are wasted, as business people are obliged to give evidence rather than getting on with their jobs. Huge fees are racked up by lawyers and “expert witnesses”, who are called on to pronounce on the exact meaning of an insult, and on all the unverifiable aches and pains and stresses that may constitute a disability.

The total cost of the system has been put at £1 billion for British business, and it is rising the whole time. In 2010, the number of employment tribunal cases rose by 56 per cent, with an amazing 236,000 cases last year alone. Of course there are hundreds if not thousands of firms that simply don’t have the cash or the energy to fight – not when it costs an average of £8,500 to put up resistance, and about £4,500 to settle.

Even when they fight and win, it can be a pretty pyrrhic sort of victory. A small manufacturing company with 45 employees decided to sack an employee who was caught stealing the company’s booze. The company was completely confident that it had proved the theft against the employee – an alcoholic cleaner – but she sued for sex discrimination and breach of contract, and by the time the whole thing finished, nine months later, the firm was £11,000 down, on what should have been a slam-dunk case. No wonder firms are gun-shy of this kind of battle, and no wonder people (and their solicitors) have been emboldened to have a go. The stigma has gone from the obvious try-on. In fact the only stigma attaches to anyone who dares to question where we are going. Why did all three parties sign up to Hattie Harman’s “Equalities Act”, which is already threatening to be a new engine for vexatious litigation of all kinds? Because no one wants to seem opposed to “equality”.

Where, you might ask, is the equality in a system that adds so much to the cost base of business that they can’t afford – or don’t dare – to take on more staff in a recession? For centuries people have fought to protect workers from discrimination and unfair dismissal, and it is of course vital that we should have these safeguards.

The trouble is that it is now becoming standard practice to follow any dismissal or redundancy with a discrimination claim, in the knowledge that the employer – often an emanation of the state – will find it easier and cheaper to cough up rather than argue. The result is that many genuine grievances and genuine cases of discrimination risk being lumped in with a load of codswallop, and the system is in danger, frankly, of being brought into disrepute.

Of course there will be many who think I am being too harsh. Times are tough, they may say, and people who face unemployment should be urged to go for everything they can get – like the people who think they are morally justified in overclaiming on their insurance for lost luggage.

But what about the people who don’t qualify for any kind of “discrimination”, or who don’t feel that it would be right to launch a case? Who will speak up for them? What about the small businesses driven under by these extra costs? What about the psychological toll on society of a system that insidiously encourages people to lie or to exaggerate in order to get money from their employer?

The Government is right that it is time to end the tribunal madness, and to introduce a new culture of robust common sense, of the kind advocated by Trevor Phillips of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. Measures like Hattie Harman’s Equalities Act should be assessed for their impact on jobs and growth, never mind “equalities”.

If there is one way to entrench inequality in this country, it is to prevent British business from generating jobs. We used to compete on tax and on labour market flexibility, and the danger at the moment is that we are losing our edge on both.

In the case of the 40-year-old man who felt his bottom had been unjustly slapped by a 68-year-old woman, the whole thing should have been kicked out first bounce. As long as the hearings continue, the bills continue to mount, and the economy continues to suffer an unnecessary drag.

15 thoughts on “The John Lewis harassment case”

  1. This is getting ridiculous. Not only are cases like this making people less and less willing to work but they are also making companies reluctant to hire.

    What with the current economical state we truly do not need this.

    OK, so there may be a few real cases where an employee is really getting sexually harassed or discriminated against however, most of these cases that are popping up are made by chancers who are out for all they can get.

  2. When, nine months ago, the coalition government was formed, I was, despite my misgivings, prepared to give it a year to see what it could do.  I need not have bothered.

    Nine months Mr. Cameron has been Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and what has he achieved ?  How much of the disastrous socialist legislation of the last sixty-five years has been repealed ?

    The answer is bugger-all.

    On finance he has panicked :  it took thirteen years for Labour to take a reasonably prosperous economy to the brink of bankruptcy.  This is — or was — one of the World’s leading economies we’re discussing, not a village gardening club ;  it was not only inadvisable but quite unnecessary to try to solve the country’s economic problems — decades in the making — in two, or even four, years.

    Meanwhile, so devoted is this coalition of the Liberal-Democrats, the socialist-wing of the Conservative Party and its spineless right-wing to the expansion of the state, that even the economic measures already instituted are having virtually no effect :  the deficit is not falling ;  the debt continues to rise.

    On big government he has been, if anything, interventionist.  Where is this bonfire of socialist legislation ?  They could have held it in the bowl of my pipe — and I gave up smoking in the late eighties !

    Before the birth of the race-relations industry there were plenty of immigrants and, whilst I think we were wrong to ghetto-ize them by shepherding them in to neighbourhoods for which we didn’t care, the fact is that we got along.  By and large a Jamaican or an Indian could expect a far better life in this country than in his country of origin ;  to-day we are plagued by organizations and minor political parties whose support revolves around antipathy toward immigrants.  The rest of Labour’s legislation is in a similar vein :  aimed at generating an envious underclass.

    On the E.U. (another branch of big government) and the E.C.H.R. he has been nothing short of supine.  He slavishly follows the E.U. in promoting the anthropogenic-global-warming fraud ;  he does nothing about the Court’s blatant expansionist interference with the international treaty that gave rise to it.

    The Mayor’s first instincts are right :  whilst those unfairly treated by employers, tradesmen &c. should have reasonable redress, a court clerk should be able to throw out cases of this type.

    The problem is that the government and the legislature are seen by the economically illiterate and see themselves as the solution ;  in reality they are the problem.  In its nine months’ existence the Coalition should have been working, not at expanding the influence of the state, but at shrinking it.  It cannot expect the electorate of the United Kingdom to be patient with it for much longer.


  3. Top Gear’s offensive stereotyping has gone too far, says Steve Coogan.

    As a huge fan of Top Gear. I normally regard the presenters’ brand of irreverence as a part of the rough and tumble that goes with having a sense of humour. I’ve been on the show three times and had a go at their celebrity-lap challenge, and I would love to receive a fourth invite. But I think that’s unlikely once they have read this. If, however, it makes the Lads question their behaviour for a second – ambitious, I know – it will be worth it.

    I normally remain below the parapet when these frenetic arguments about comedy and taste break out. But this time, I’ve had enough of the regular defence you tend to hear – the tired line that it’s “just a laugh”, a bit of “harmless fun”.

    Some of the Lads’ comments again, in case you missed them. “Mexican cars are just going to be lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight, leaning against a fence asleep looking at a cactus, with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat” (Richard Hammond). Mexican food is “sick with cheese on it” (James May).

    Jeremy Clarkson added to the mirth by suggesting that the Mexican ambassador (a certain Eduardo Medina-Mora Icaza) would be so busy sleeping he wouldn’t register any outrage. (He wasn’t and he did.)

    OK, guys, I’ve got some great ideas for your next show. Jeremy, why not have James describe some kosher food as looking like “sick with cheese on it”? No? Thought not. Even better, why not describe some Islamic fundamentalists as lazy and feckless?

    Feel the silence. They’re all pretty well organised these days, aren’t they, those groups? Better stick to those that are least problematic.

    Old people? Special needs? I know – Mexicans! There aren’t enough of them to be troublesome, no celebrities to be upset. And most of them are miles and miles away.

    The BBC’s initial mealy-mouthed apology was pitiful. It cited the more benign rivalry that exists between European nations (ah, those arrogant French, over-organised Germans), and in doing so neatly sidestepped one hugely important fact – ethnicity. All the examples it uses to legitimise this hateful rubbish are relatively prosperous countries full of white people. How about if the Lads had described Africans as lazy, feckless etc? Or Pakistanis?

    What’s more, this was all spouted by the presenters on one of the BBC’s most successful programmes, with ratings that could only fail to impress Simon Cowell (very fast lap time). Forget the World Service; overseas, Top Gear is more frequently the public face of the BBC.

    The Beeb’s hand-wringing suggested tolerance of casual racism, arguably the most sinister kind. It’s easy to spot the ones with the burning crosses. Besides, there is not a shred of truth in Top Gear’s “comic” stereotype. I can tell you from my own experience, living in the US, Mexicans work themselves to the bone doing all the dirty thankless jobs that the white middle-class natives won’t do.

    What makes it worse is that the Lads wear this offensive behaviour as a badge of pride, pleased that they have annoyed those whom they regard, in another lazy stereotype, as sandal-wearing vegans with beards and no sense of humour.

    Well here’s some Twitter hot news: I don’t have a beard, I’m not a vegan, I don’t wear sandals (unless they’re Birkenstocks, of course), and I have, I think, a sense of humour. I also know something about comedy. It’s true there are no hard fast rules; it’s often down to judgment calls. It’s safe to say, though, that you can get away with saying unsayable things if it’s done with some sense of culpability.

    I’ve been fortunate enough to work with the likes of Peter Baynham, Armando Iannucci, Chris Morris, Simon Pegg, Julia Davis, Caroline Aherne, Ruth Jones, and the Mighty Boosh – some of the funniest and most innovative people in British comedy. And Rob Brydon too.

    It’s a diverse, eclectic group of people with one common denominator: they could all defend and justify their comedy from a moral standpoint. They are laughing at hypocrisy, human frailty, narrow-mindedness. They mock pomposity and arrogance.

    If I say anything remotely racist or sexist as Alan Partridge, for example, the joke is abundantly clear. We are laughing at a lack of judgment and ignorance. With Top Gear it is three rich, middle-aged men laughing at poor Mexicans. Brave, groundbreaking stuff, eh?

    There is a strong ethical dimension to the best comedy. Not only does it avoid reinforcing prejudices, it actively challenges them. Put simply, in comedy, as in life, we ought to think before we speak. This wasn’t one of those occasions. In fact, the comments were about as funny as a cold sweat followed by shooting pains down the left arm. In fact, if I can borrow from the Wildean wit of Richard Hammond, the comic approach was “lazy”, “feckless” and “flatulent”.

    Richard has his tongue so far down the back of Jeremy’s trousers he could forge a career as the back end of a pantomime horse. His attempt to foster some Clarkson-like maverick status with his “edgy” humour is truly tragic. He reminds you of the squirt at school as he hangs round Clarkson the bully, as if to say, “I’m with him”. Meanwhile, James May stands at the back holding their coats as they beat up the boy with the stutter.

    It’s not entirely their fault, of course. Part of the blame must lie with what some like to call the “postmodern” reaction to overzealous political correctness. Sometimes, it’s true, things need a shakeup; orthodoxies need to be challenged. But this sort of ironic approach has been a licence for any halfwit to vent the prejudices they’d been keeping in the closet since Love Thy Neighbour was taken off the air.

    Also, a factor little picked up on elsewhere in the Lads’ remarks is that they do, after all, present a car show. And archaic attitudes are endemic in a lot of motoring journalism. I confess I am an avid consumer and I have to wade through a sea of lazy cliches to get to anything genuinely illuminating.

    Jeremy unwittingly cast the template for this. Twenty years ago, when I bought Performance Car magazine, his column was the first I would turn to. It was slightly annoying but unfailingly funny. Since then there have been legions of pretenders who just don’t pass muster. There is a kneejerk, brainless reaction to any legislation that may have a detrimental effect on their God-given right to drive cars anywhere at any speed that they consider safe. They often remind me of the National Rifle Association in the US who, I’m sure we can all agree, are a bunch of nutters. It’s a kind of “airbags are for poofs” mentality and, far from being shocking, it’s just shockingly dull.

    It would be fine if it was confined to a bunch of grumpy men in bad jeans smoking Marlboros at the side of the Millbrook test track, but it’s not. As I pointed out, it’s the voice of one of the BBC’s most successful programmes.

    The Lads have this strange notion that if they are being offensive it bestows on them a kind of anti-establishment aura of coolness; in fact, like their leather jackets and jeans, it is uber-conservative (which isn’t cool).

    Gentlemen, I don’t believe in half-criticisms and this has nothing to do with my slow lap times. But, increasingly, you each look like a middle-aged punk rocker pogoing at his niece’s wedding. That would be funny if you weren’t regarded by some people as role models. Big viewing figures don’t give you impunity – they carry responsibility. Start showing some, tuck your shirts in, be a bit funnier and we’ll pretend it all never happened.

  4. “Holy mother, on 26th June this year, as Nurse Heavenly Goodwoman and four nursing colleagues used the ward hoist to lift the patient, Miss Heffalump, did the hoist malfunction and did 25 stone Miss Heffalump fall on top of 8 stone nurse Goodwoman, trapping the nurse?”

    “Aaaah….”, the blushing nun whimpered behind the tear stained handkerchief that she held in her trembling hand.

    “Was that ‘yes’, or ‘no’, holy mother?”, pleaded the Tribunal Chairman.

    The holy mother, who was now silently mouthing Hail Mary’s for the intercession of the blessed virgin, after several fits and starts, finally managed to whisper, “Yes”

    “You stated last week that you witnessed this incident and rushed to the…now two patients?…whereupon you immediately sacked nurse Goodwoman as she lay prostrate beneath Miss Heffalump. Is that correct?”, I asked, to a chorus of ‘aaah…aaahs’ from the holy mother. Can I ask you…yet again…why you sacked her?”

    “I cannot repeat the sinful expression she used”, the holy mother stated for the umpteenth time.

    “Take your time, holy mother, I’m sure the Chairman understands your dilemma”, I said, flashing a disdainful glance at the three tribunal members who were simultaneously rolling their eyes towards the ceiling. “I do apologise for this but we must hear what happened…Perhaps I can help you…” I glanced at the Chairman, but he didn’t need my silent plea for the holy mother’s blessed relief: he was nodding enthusiastically and willing me on.

    “Did nurse Goodwoman, from the depths of her pain and distress – and the depths of Miss Heffalump, of course – cry out something totally out of character? Did she cry out: “Oh Christ, she’s killing me!”, holy mother?”

    The holy mother eyes moistened and she looked fit to faint. Two nuns dropped to their knees in the public gallery, their eyes pleading with me not to ask her that question ever again”. Yet the holy mother declined the Chairman’s offer of a recess and at last replied, “…Yes, that is what she said”, gesturing to me to continue.

    ” And was that when you sacked her?”

    “…Yes”, she at last replied.

    It had taken days of entirely unnecessary mutual mental torture for the tribunal and I, at great public expense, to tease replies out of this very reluctant, costly and time wasting respondent.

  5. As a young tribunal representative, longer ago than I care to recall, I worked on far too many highly expensive, tragi-comic cases like the one over-dramatised above, cases which should never, ever have cast their shadow over the public purse. These should never have gone to tribunal.

    A substantial proportion of other cases should never have gone to tribunal either, because there simply was no case to answer.

    Frivolous and vexatious cases and those with no merit should be more efficiently filtered out of the tribunal system.

    Cases like that of the nurse sacked from a convent should be decided by an experienced conciliation body like ACAS, in a more informal setting and at far less cost to the taxpayer: and with the aim of conciliation, not of punishing the small employer who is understandably bewildered by the unnecessary complexities of current law.

    The lawyers and tribunals will never rationalise the costly, compensationitis free for all that the tribunal system became under weak willed Blair and Brown. Only a determined government can do that. In doing so, however, government must avoid the danger of transforming employment law into a rich hotel that only the wealthy have access to

  6. When Konstantinos Kalomoiris went to his manager and complained about being groped his manager told him not only that this didn’t matter but, in fact, that Mr Kalomoiris should be flattered.

    Now, what you won’t hear about from the tabloids is the fact that when later questioned by the tribunal as to whether or not John Lewis manager Martin Nicholls would have told a female employee exactly the same thing if she’d gone to him with a complaint that she’d been groped by a male colleague he said: “Yes”.

    You see, this fact is ‘inconvenient’ with regard to the message that the tabloid and right-wing commentators wish to convey. They don’t want women to find out that they see nothing wrong with groping a woman on the tube, or a kid on work experience, for instance.

    Did you know this, Mr Johnson? Because if so, you are condoning the sexual assault of women by men? Something that women voters should be aware of from now on. Be aware: some of us can see through the veneer.

  7. …And I wonder how many people would think of groping someone’s backside in the workplace as ‘just a bit of harmless fun’ if it were their son or daughter who was the victim?

  8. I’m talking nonsense, of course, in saying that the law shouldn’t become a rich hotel, as that’s exactly what it is and always has been. But some points of access have been opened up, such as access to cheap, DIY divorce thanks to the Divorce Reform Act, which led to a substantial increase in the rate of divorce for a couple of decades until the backlog of pent up human misery was cleared. There was also a great opening up of the law in respect of Industrial Tribunals.

  9. the unfeeling boss class – Boris

    Who is the boss??
    Hopeless to find, yet loth to leave unsought
    Comedy of errors, Shakespeare

    The boss has no more power, since it is evolved to the “observers”, or as it is said to the “advisers”!!

  10. hji10, having re-read your contribution, I am now convinced that Jeremy Clarkson is definitely the right man to replace the Prince of Wales at the upcoming EU conference on all things groovy.

  11. Only 3 weeks ago, most British newspapers were up in arms when TV football pundits Andy Gray and Richard Keys made a jokey remark ( off-air ) that women didn’t understand the football offside rule. The self-righteous British press called for Gray and Keys to be sacked for being sexist and politically incorrect.

    The same newspapers are now saying that ” if a man complains about having his bottom slapped by a woman, there must be something wrong with him.” They are trying to say he must be gay, that is.

    Have you looked at the old slapper’s face yet, folks? With a face like that, if she slapped Hugh Hefner’s bottom “playfully”, he would complain, too.

    After the old slapper had slapped his bottom once, the man complained to his managers who should have told the old slapper not to do it again, but no, they didn’t, did they? they just told him there was nothing wrong with that. So the old slapper did it again and again. Mounting to sexual harassment, surely? if the old slapper was a man and the man was a woman who had complained.

    Some people don’t like to be touched by anyone except their family. Some prefer to be touched by the opposite sex only. Some prefer to be touched by the same sex only. Some don’t mind being touched by both sexes ( but this doesn’t mean they are bi-sexual, mind! ). But the rule is it helps if the slapper is beautiful/ handsome.

    Beauty is only skin deep, but it does help you glide over everything, folks. But if someone says they don’t like that you touched them, you should apologise and don’t it again. You treat people the way you like to be treated. Simple.

  12. C’est dommage! He would have won if he was a woman and the slapper was a man. And you all know that.

    I used to work at this place where a young girl staff told one of the managers to stop calling her ‘love’, the man apologised and called her by her first name instead. That’s how it should be. There’s nothing wrong with calling someone ‘love’, but if that person doesn’t like to be called ‘love’ or ‘dear’ or ‘darling’ or ‘babe’ then don’t call them that, just call them by their proper name instead. How difficult is that?

    The John Lewis old slapper now claimed she had slapped the man’s bottom ( on 3 separate occasions, even after the man had complained after the first time ) like a grandmother would. Oh please. How patronising. When I read that, I was reminded straight away of the incident where I used to work:

    I was a new young worker and this particular old man, a lowly staff like the rest, was very touchy-feely towards me which I didn’t like. One day, he announced loudly to my line manager in front of everybody in the crowded work canteen that he ‘would look after me’. Some people laughed. I retorted ‘No, I don’t need you to look after me, I didn’t ask you to look after me, I can look after myself just fine!’.

    He said sorry he didn’t mean anything he was only trying to help me like a grandfather would. My line manager later said to me ‘Well done!’.

    You don’t know anything about the John Lewis old slapper. They said she had been working there for many years and nothing bad in her file. But when she claimed she was only acting like a grandmother would, I remember the touchy-feely old codger at my old workplace made the same claim. Both have the same patronising attitude. I know straight away what she is really like – ANNOYING. and that should be classed as harassment at work.

  13. What a dull old world work has become.

    A sort of monotonous grey straightjacket of ludicrous rules that create utterly artificial behaviours that sensible people ignore outside the office.

    Frankly I want nothing to do with it – work is exceedingly over-rated in any case – and so I now work for myself and employ no one.

    Life is so much more agreeable as a result.

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