Sushi comment was not racist finds employment tribunal

Sushi comment was not racist finds employment tribunal

A claim for direct race discrimination has failed after a Japanese language and translation specialist accused her line manager of harassment, bullying and unfair treatment on the basis of her ethnicity.

Among the many issues considered by the employment tribunal was a comment by Professor Ozanne to Professor Sato-Rossberg, a Japanese woman, that she and her family enjoyed sushi.

The claim, Ms N Sato-Rossberg vs SOAS University of London, involved a multitude of grievances from Ms Sato-Rossberg, who had been working at SOAS since 2014.

In 2019 she was promoted to head of department for the School of Languages, Culture and Linguistics. In 2020, Ozanne, an insect ecologist, was appointed deputy director and provost at the SOAS, becoming Sato-Rossberg’s boss.

The central London tribunal heard that in September 2021 Ozanne told her about a Japanese sushi restaurant near her home which her family enjoyed.

“[Sato-Rossberg] took exception to this,” the hearing was told. She told the tribunal: “She would not have said to a German person, ‘I like sausage’.”

“If Prof Ozanne wished to make conversation, we had many commonalities through our work and professional academic endeavour,” she added.

“But [she] chose to speak only about topics directly relevant to my race: the liking of Japanese food and that her family like it and eat sushi.”

Prof Sato-Rossberg first met Ozanne formally on her appointment in September 2020 with Jo Bland, deputy HR director. Ms Bland’s notes of the meeting recorded that Sato-Rossberg commented that she thought Ozanne would “be biased because [she, Sato-Rossberg] was not British and was a woman and BAME” and that she thought Ozanne “already had this bias”.

Sato-Rossberg later explained that she didn’t specifically anticipate that Ozanne had bias towards her, but that she felt that non-BAME people had unconscious bias. At the tribunal, Sato-Rossberg confirmed that she believed this because she had experienced discrimination against her as an East Asian person in 2020, during the Covid pandemic.

Further disputes arose on a variety of issues, including Ms Sato-Rossberg’s management of her department, words used on out-of-office email messages, conduct during meetings, and the department’s policy of moving towards the “decasualisation” of staff.

At one point Sato-Rossberg sent an email to school director Professor Adam Habib stating: “My therapist is concerned that if the work environment at SOAS remains the same, this is risking my wellbeing. Especially, she is concerned about the damage caused by [Ozanne] already. To avoid further risks to my wellbeing, to create a safe work environment for me, and to allow me to perform more than 100% without being harassed, I am afraid I need to ask that Ozanne is replaced by somebody else as my line manager.” She also said that Ozanne, “ … tries to suppress my voice, the voice of a woman of colour.”

Her working relationship with Ozanne deteriorated as she felt singled out for perceived departmental failings. Over one administrative issue she said: “I always checked the forms with HR and finance and they always said they didn’t know why [Ozanne] said it was wrong, so I started to think it was something else.”

Sato-Rossberg’s complaints were eventually referred to an external investigator but HR backlogs in mid-2022 caused considerable delays. She stepped down from her position as head of department on 31 July 2022.

The investigation eventually found there was no evidence to support the allegation that Ozanne was bullying or harassing Sato-Rossberg. But the stress that Sato-Rossberg had been under because of SOAS reorganisation, a bereavement and the pandemic preventing her from travelling to Japan, was recognised in the report.

Khadir Meer, COO at SOAS, met with Sato-Rossberg and told her he was not able to provide an apology, nor
compensation, given that the investigation into her complaint had concluded that there was no evidence of Ozanne bullying and harassing her.

The employment tribunal did not uphold any of Ms Sato-Rossberg’s complaints. It stated it was “satisfied that the claimant was not treated less favourably than a comparator in the same circumstances”. It was satisfied that the “respondent’s choice of procedure and investigation outcome were not tainted by race discrimination or victimisation in any way.”

Referring to the comment about the Sushi restaurant, the judgment said that Ozanne said this knowing that the claimant was Japanese and believing she would receive this positively. “She was making small talk and trying to establish a point of shared interest. Ms Ozanne said nothing detrimental about Japan,” the judge said.

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