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He lost £250,000 in earnings after he was heard asking if there are black privileges in Ghana during a staff Zoom call

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Northampton railway manager Simon was summarily dismissed for gross misconduct last year

Railway manager Simon Isherwood was so passionate about his job with West Midlands Trains, he was known to his line manager as ‘Mr Northampton.’

There was nothing he didn’t know about train services to and from the market town.

Starting his career more than 11 years ago as a train conductor, Mr Isherwood, 60, had risen through the ranks — twice winning awards along the way for going beyond the call of duty in customer service.

As manager of a diverse team of around 25 conductors, he liked to think of himself as someone who has always treated everyone fairly and equally regardless of colour, creed, gender or sexuality.

It was his idea to invite everyone in his team to take part in a morale-boosting ‘feel-good’ video during lockdown, set to the Billy Ocean song When The Going Gets Tough, which attracted 4,400 views on YouTube.

When the company then asked him to put forward two conductors for a poster campaign welcoming commuters back after lockdown, Mr Isherwood’s first choice was a young man from Pakistan — simply because he was his best employee.

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‘I loved my job and there was nothing I wouldn’t have done for that company,’ says Mr Isherwood, proud of the way he as a manager judged others on merit and job performance alone.

‘From the day I started I’d never had anything but promotion, praise and awards. They knew that if something went wrong I’d be the first one on the scene.’

So Mr Isherwood was devastated when he was sacked by West Midlands Trains from his £49,000-a-year job for gross misconduct at a disciplinary hearing in March last year.

Simon was devastated when he was sacked from his £49,000-a-year job at West Midlands Trains after forgetting to turn his mic off
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Simon was devastated when he was sacked from his £49,000-a-year job at West Midlands Trains after forgetting to turn his mic off

His crime? He’d forgotten to turn off his microphone following a diversity and inclusion online webinar, which he attended voluntarily at home after his morning shift at the station, on the subject of ‘white privilege’.

To his acute embarrassment, other managers —still logged on after the team talk ended — overheard Mr Isherwood saying to his wife: ‘I couldn’t be a***** because I thought, “you know what, I’ll just get f***ing angry”.’

The private conversation went on: ‘You know what I really wanted to ask . . . and I wish I had, do they have black privilege in other countries? So, if you’re in Ghana?’

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Suspended the same day following a complaint by a manager from sister company East Midlands Trains, which organised the webinar, a mortified Mr Isherwood apologised profusely to his bosses for the microphone lapse, his swearing and any unintended offence.

He insisted the first part of the conversation did not relate to the webinar at all but was in response to a note his wife had placed in front of him, asking, ‘Have you phoned the oven man?’ because their appliance was broken.

Yes, he admitted, he’d felt a little annoyed and insulted by some aspects of the webinar, presented by an outside consultant who was white, which seemed — to him at least — to suggest that all white people are born inherently racist.

His question about ‘black privilege’ — he maintained —was not intended as criticism or mockery of the webinar, but as a genuine one intended to help him understand better.

‘We’d been asked to think of questions and I was just doing what I was told,’ he says.

White privilege, as Mr Isherwood understood it, refers to unearned benefits automatically bestowed on those born white in a largely white society; benefits unconsciously or otherwise denied other ethnic groups.

So, he’d wondered — out loud to his wife — whether there was an equivalent concept of ‘black privilege’ in a country such as Ghana, where the population is 98 per cent black and 2 per cent white.

His explanations, however, fell on deaf ears. He was sacked after West Midlands Trains (WMT) ruled he had ‘caused offence, brought the company into disrepute and breached our equality, diversity and inclusion policy and the code of conduct’.

He internally appealed in April last year but this was rejected and no further right of appeal was allowed. This week, however, in what is now being hailed as a ‘landmark victory’ for free speech, an employment tribunal ruled that Mr Isherwood had been unfairly sacked.

In his ruling, employment judge Stephen Wyeth said: ‘Freedom of expression, including a qualified right to offend when expressing views and beliefs [in this case regarding social issues], is a fundamental right in a democratic society.

‘It simply cannot be right that employees are not allowed to have views that they privately express about courses they attend, however odious or objectionable others might consider them to be if they come to know of those views.’ Toby Young, founder and general secretary of the Free Speech Union, which supported Mr Isherwood through the tribunal process, added: ‘I’m delighted we were able to help Simon win a landmark victory for free speech.

‘I hope this sends a message to other employers: you cannot dismiss staff for gross misconduct for mocking woke diversity training. Workers have rights, including the right to free speech.’

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Today, in his first interview since the ruling, Mr Isherwood is filled with relief at his vindication, but far from jubilant following his victory. ‘I may have won the employment tribunal, but have I really won? Absolutely not. I feel completely destroyed,’ says Mr Isherwood, who adds that the 16 months since his sacking have been a nightmare for him, his wife of 37 years and family.

‘I was unfairly sacked in disgrace from the best job I’ve ever had and I can’t even look back at those 11 years with any affection because of the way I was treated.

‘I was left feeling like some kind of criminal when I’d done nothing illegal. I’m not racist and never have been but because of this there will always be a stigma attached and some people who will think there was no smoke without fire.

‘Of course I regret accidentally leaving the microphone on and that people heard me swearing, that is never nice to hear but —though it’s no excuse — it’s a fact of life that swearing can sometimes seem almost like a second language on the railways.

‘I remember receiving a letter, issued to all train crew from WMT’s HR director, stating they accepted members of train crew swore. But do I regret asking that question about privilege? Some people might say it was contentious, but it was not racist.

‘Even the webinar organiser later told the investigation that it was a good question and, had I asked it during the session, it could have sparked a conversation about the British Empire.

‘I never set out to offend and I am very upset that anyone was. But, in a democratic society which values free speech, no one has the right not to be offended.

‘But WMT not only took away my job and my livelihood, they took away my reputation and my whole future. Who is going to employ me now? A WMT director stated at the tribunal they won’t even give me a reference, despite my years of loyal, unblemished service.

‘I was a valued manager, well-liked by my team, other managers and customers. There’d never been a single complaint about me. Then, almost overnight I became a pariah.’

Mr Isherwood never imagined when he started his railway career that one day he’d end up ‘cancelled’ — much like one of those trains halted in their tracks because of the ‘wrong type of leaves’ on the line.

Having worked in management roles in building societies and recruitment, before redundancy forced a change in career, Mr Isherwood says he had a long history of working with diverse cultures.

The irony of his situation, he says, is that he fully embraced and supported WMT’s commitment to equal opportunities, diversity and inclusion, enthusiastically signing up to management courses.

‘I think staff surveys carried out twice a year had shown a problem with discrimination within WMT. They really wanted to do something to show they were tackling it, which is right and I fully supported that,’ he says.

‘I think this whole situation with me fell into their lap at the same time and, quite frankly, I feel I was used to set some kind of example to other employees.’

Was it a coincidence, he asks, that shortly after he was sacked, WMT won ‘Most Improved Organisation’ at the 2021 FREDIE Awards — FREDIE standing for Fairness, Respect, Equality, Diversity, Inclusion and Engagement — run by the National Centre for Diversity?

‘Sometimes, I like to think that I helped them win that award . . . by getting sacked,’ he says.

Certainly, Mr Isherwood believes that the punishment he received far exceeded his misdemeanour.

‘When the webinar ended, the presenter said to us, “you can all go now” and some people started logging off. I stayed because I wanted to thank the presenter as I’m polite and I’d genuinely found it interesting,’ he says.

‘The only reason I hadn’t raised my question during the session was because I was taking part on my phone rather than my company laptop, which I’d had problems with, and couldn’t find the wave button to indicate I had a query.

‘Although I accept that white privilege exists, I wasn’t sure it existed in quite the way it was being presented to us and so I had a lot of questions after the presentation ended.

‘He told us a second time the webinar was over and more people logged off. I thought I had too when I walked into the kitchen, where my wife was working from home, but somehow I’d only switched off the camera.

‘I only realised the microphone was still on when a friend phoned me and said, “We can hear you effing and jeffing”. By this time there were still about 30 people logged on and I was horrified. I immediately switched off the microphone.’

Not long after, Mr Isherwood received a phone call from his immediate boss telling him he was being suspended on full pay with immediate effect, pending an investigation following a complaint.

When she asked what had happened, he did his best to explain, apologised profusely and hoped his bosses would take his exemplary working record into consideration with regards to this one regretted lapse in professionalism.

He would later find out that one webinar participant, who he didn’t personally know, had emailed the course organiser to say she was ‘quite shocked’ by what she’d heard and that it was awful.

‘She said something along the lines of, “I didn’t want to make this formal, however, this is exactly the type of behaviour we should be trying to stamp out”. She called me uneducated and my comments disgraceful,’ says Mr Isherwood, of what he learned from disclosure documents before his tribunal.

By the time of Mr Isherwood’s investigation meeting, the complainant had decided that what she’d overheard ‘was the most appalling thing I have ever heard’.

‘What upset me the most is that the conversation she thought she’d heard, and had been so offended by, differed quite significantly from the conversation which had actually been recorded,’ he says.

‘Of course I was embarrassed when they played back my words to me because I couldn’t remember exactly either, and I said to them, “I can understand why some people might have got upset”. No one likes to hear swearing.

‘But I felt it was almost as if it didn’t really matter to them how accurate the complainant’s memory was. It seemed enough for them that she was offended by what she thought she’d heard rather than what was actually said, its context or what was meant.

‘As far as I’m aware, no one else had formally complained, but a couple of people had been commenting on it on an East Midlands Trains chat room. However the conversations were about what people thought they’d heard and not my exact words.

‘People’s ears prick up when they hear swearing in the background, even more so when they hear the word “black” in the next sentence. It’s very easy to jump to the wrong conclusion, put two and two together and come up with five, based on a misremembered conversation.’

Mr Isherwood is relieved that the employment tribunal judge made the correct calculation after hearing all the evidence from both sides — that he had the right to express a personal opinion, within the law, regardless of whether it offended another without being sacked.

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A West Midlands Trains spokesman said after the employment judge’s ruling: ‘We respect the decision of the Tribunal. West Midlands Trains is an inclusive employer and there is no place for discriminatory behaviour within the rail industry.’

A date for a remedy hearing to decide compensation or whether Mr Isherwood can have his job back has yet to be set, but he can’t see himself returning to the role he once loved and still misses.

‘I’d planned to work until I was at least 65,’ says Mr Isherwood. ‘So by my reckoning I’ve lost £250,000 in earnings, not to mention pension contributions, but I’ve lost so much more than that.

‘It’s been so devastating that not a day has passed since my sacking that we, as a family, haven’t talked about all the “what ifs” and “if onlys”,’ adds Mr Isherwood.

‘The only thing that’s kept me going is the support of my family, friends, colleagues, the Free Speech Union and my barrister, Paul Diamond — all those who know the real me.

‘They’ve never doubted me or believed I could ever do what I was being accused of. That means the world to me.’

Culled from the Daily Mail

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