Afro-Caribbean BT worker wins £20,000 after she was 'humiliated' by her manager

A black woman with two university degrees has won a £20,000 payout after saying she felt ‘humiliated’ when her manager at BT joked she could be ‘deported’.

Fignola Alexandre, who is from the USA, was left ‘deeply distressed’ when boss Craig Warner made the insensitive joke about her visa extension application.

Mr Warner also ‘shocked’ Ms Alexandre and another black employee by suggesting the fact there weren’t many black swimmers was ‘because of class’, a tribunal heard.

Mr Warner denied making the comment and insisted he was instead quoting a Tweet referring to ‘elite black NFL players’ not being able to swim because they were from ‘underprivileged backgrounds’.

BT Openreach worker Fignola Alexandre has been awarded over £20,000 at a Manchester tribunal (pictured) after saying a manager 'humiliated her' at work

BT Openreach worker Fignola Alexandre has been awarded over £20,000 at a Manchester tribunal (pictured) after saying a manager ‘humiliated her’ at work

However, an employment tribunal ruled Ms Alexandre was racially harassed due to her boss’s comments. Now, after successfully suing Openreach Ltd for race harassment, Ms Alexandre has won £20,964.

The Manchester tribunal heard Ms Alexandre – who is Afro-Caribbean heritage and moved to America from Haiti as a child – began working for BT in a graduate role in September 2016.

She was described as being highly educated, with two degrees – one from the prestigious Columbia University in New York and a Masters from Manchester University.

In August 2019 she began a new role as an industry engagement specialist, with an agreed salary of £38,000 per year.

She reported directly to Mr Warner and was recruited at the same time as two other women – one of whom, Bernice Iyanda, is also black.

After settling into her new job, the tribunal heard Ms Alexandre became ‘anxious’ due to the upcoming expiration of her working visa.

Though the application for a visa extension had already begun, Ms Alexandre was said to have been finding the process ‘stressful’.

The tribunal was told she was worried the relevant people dealing with the visa extension could be preoccupied with other matters, meaning her application wouldn’t be submitted on time.

In early-December Mr Warner raised Ms Alexandre’s concerns about her visa, at her request, to more senior managers.

However, during a call at around the same time Mr Warner also made a joke about Ms Alexandre being ‘deported’.

Although at the time neither she nor Ms Iyanda – who was also on the call – reacted to the comment, Ms Alexandre told the tribunal she felt ‘shocked and humiliated’.

Her visa extension was later granted on time.

In late January 2020 Ms Alexandre, Mr Warner, Ms Iyanda and another white male colleague travelled to Belfast in Northern Ireland on a work visit.

The tribunal heard the group went out for dinner together one evening, during which Mr Warner was said to have suggested the absence of top-level black swimmers was due to ‘class’.

In her evidence to the tribunal, Ms Alexandre said the conversation arose after she explained she ‘could not swim’ and did not like swimming ‘because of her hair’, which she said was a common reason not to swim in the black community.

She says Mr Warner then contributed, saying, ‘I thought it was because of class’.

Mr Warner denied saying the lack of professional black swimmers was due to ‘class’ – but told the tribunal he had referred to a tweet about black American Football players being unable to swim. He stated the NFL tweet referred to some top athletes coming from underprivileged backgrounds, where swimming was not encouraged or simply was not available.

Ms Alexandre and Ms Iyanda were ‘very offended’, it was heard, and took his comments to mean black people were of ‘low class’.

In her evidence, Ms Alexandre referred to historic racial segregation in the United States, mentioning civil rights activist Rosa Parks and ‘pools being drained if a black person had swum in them’.

At the end of January Ms Alexandre wrote to Mr Warner saying she felt she was not performing well in her role and felt ‘judged’.

After consulting senior managers, Mr Warner told her he may need to put her on a coaching plan which, if it didn’t lead to a performance improvement, could ultimately result in her dismissal.

She declined an invitation to a meeting to discuss the plan in mid-February, and presented a formal grievance about Mr Warne’s comments on her potential deportation and black swimmers.

Three days later she went on sick leave due to anxiety and stress.

The tribunal heard the grievance investigation later ‘excused’ Mr Warner’s comments and Ms Alexandre’s appeal was also dismissed.

However, Employment Judge Hilary Slater ruled both the deportation and the swimming comments amounted to harassment.

At a hearing to determine Ms Alexandre’s compensation, Judge Slater said: ‘We accept the evidence given by Ms Alexandre that she found this ‘joke’ [about deportation] utterly humiliating and it made her feel deeply distressed.

‘We consider it likely it was an ill-judged ‘joke’, made without proper consideration of its likely effect on someone whose right to remain in the UK rested on a successful visa application.

‘[In relation to the comment about swimming], she felt so shocked, hurt and upset that she did not know how to respond.

‘She thought that, if Craig Warner thought the reason black people could not swim was because of class, he probably did not see her or her colleague, who was also black, as his equal.

‘The comment was particularly hurtful because the topic of swimming in the black community, specifically in the US, is linked with a painful history of racism, where pools would be drained if a black person stepped foot in them.

‘This was the first time in her career that she became aware that her skin tone could impact on how she was perceived in the workplace.

‘The acts of harassment contributed to her poor mental health, such that she went on sick leave for approximately six months, and had suicidal thoughts.’

Her other claims of racial discrimination and victimisation failed.