As an employer, you ought to be aware of discrimination against 'protected characteristics' - that is, mistreating somebody based on their gender, race, sexuality, disability, or age.

And as the name suggests, you have an obligation to protect your workers from being judged upon certain aspects of their background and indeed, who they are as a person.

As employment lawyers, we understand the fine line that exists between saying things in passing comment and offending an employee in a way that drives them to seek legal action.

To help you better understand 'age discrimination', I discuss a recent case whereby an apprentice joiner sued his employer over discriminatory language used via email.

MHDB Ltd were sued by their 16-year-old apprentice

Just this month, MHDB Ltd were ordered to pay their 16-year-old apprentice just under £8,000 after stating in an email that he had 'a lot of maturing up to do'.

The award consisted of £5,408 for breach of contract and £2,500 for injury to feelings resulting from age discrimination.

The teenager was offered an apprenticeship to train as a joiner, but later received the news he could not start at MHDB due to a contract fall-through.

Other offers had been turned down in favour of working at MHDB and the apprentice was under pressure to finish his work-based studying, so he swiftly sought legal advice on where he stood with his would-be employer.

Primarily, the apprentice sought legal advice on taking his employer to tribunal due to the breach of contract.

Though by this point, the focus of the legal proceedings had widened and the apprentice was able to file a legal complaint against age discrimination, too.

By examining the course of events in this case, it is easy to see why employers should remain professional and respectful to their employees, paying attention to the language they use in particular.

On what grounds did the apprentice sue his employer?

Breach of contract

Even though no written contract was issued or signed by the parties, the Employment Tribunal concluded that a contract was formed between the apprentice and MHDB Ltd.

The legal requirements for the creation of a contract (offer, acceptance and consideration) were satisfied in this case, and there was intention to create legal relations.

The key terms of employment were communicated clearly, notably the duration of the apprenticeship, the hours of work and weekly wage, and the apprentice believed he was bound by these terms as he turned down other apprenticeship opportunities.

As the contract in question was a ‘common law apprenticeship’, MHDB Ltd wrongfully terminated since this type of contract is not terminable on notice.

Apprentices engaged on common law apprenticeships are afforded extra protection, whereby their employment can only be terminated early in instances of serious misconduct.

Therefore, the apprentice in this case was entitled to recover damages for his loss of income in respect of the entire 2-year duration of the apprenticeship, which amounted to £5,408.

Had the apprentice provided further evidence of loss of career prospects through not receiving the training offered through the apprenticeship, he may have been entitled to an even higher award of damages.

Age discrimination

Due to the prejudice language used by his employer (particularly the word 'maturing', which is a reference to ageist behaviour), the apprentice was able to sue based on one of the four types of discrimination which cover age discrimination.

These types of discrimination are filed under the Equality Act 2010 of UK law and include:

This particular example of age discrimination constituted direct discrimination as the employer was significantly influenced by the apprentice’s age when making the threatening comments contained in the email.

The employment judge determining the outcome of the case stated it was clear the employer was scorned by receiving the initial email 'asserting his rights', and as such had 'treated the claimant less favourably because of his age'.

Not only did the employer tell the apprentice he needed to mature, but he threatened to undermine the apprentice’s attempts to secure employment elsewhere.

The employer threatened to blacken the apprentice’s name by refusing to recommend him to other companies and threating to inform them of his claim, after the employer had previously told the apprentice he would be provided with a reference. 

This discrimination had a ‘particularly demoralising effect’ on the apprentice; it knocked his confidence and made him question his career prospects as a joiner.

Therefore, the apprentice was awarded £2,500 to reflect this.   

Need guidance on how to treat your employees fairly?

Need advice on employing a diverse workforce, and how to ensure they feel respected regardless of their age, gender, race, sex, sexuality, and disability?

Or perhaps you are in the midst of legal proceedings and need guidance on how to respond? Speak to us for free, friendly advice today.

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About the author 

James Rowland

James is the Commercial Director at Neathouse Partners and regularly writes articles surrounding issues in HR & Employment Law. Outside of the office, James is a keen Cricketer, playing in the Cheshire League for Nantwich CC. He also loves going to watch his football team, Crewe Alexandra. Feel free to connect with James on LinkedIn.

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