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Finding the right words to help when good intentions get lost in translation

Published 01 February 2023

Fitness enthusiast Alina faced a fight to save her job after sharing her passion for healthy living with an ‘overweight’ colleague.

The hotel housekeeper honestly thought she was doing the right thing in trying to help another member of staff who had repeatedly complained about piling on weight.

But Alina’s good intentions led to her being accused of belittling and bullying her female workmate – who had originally asked her for help.

The fact English was not Romanian-born Alina’s first language was clearly an aggravating factor in what occurred.

At a planned disciplinary hearing text messages between the pair was the only evidence to support the allegation.

Alina, who had worked for her employer for just 10 months, was eventually able to clear her name with support from our representative, who she first spoke to after contacting our Employee Support Centre for help with her case.

She was perplexed and concerned by the allegation and threat of dismissal, which came with it.

Worried Alina insisted she was genuinely trying to be helpful and supportive and pass on tips after being asked to help.

She explained her passion for fitness and shared images and messages from her social media accounts, which featured her healthy eating tips and exercise regime.

When Alina was suspended from work she was deeply upset to be informed that her colleague had described her as fanatical about health and said she would not leave her alone and constantly ‘fat shamed’ her.

It was clear to our representative the text messages were genuinely intended to be encouraging but could have been better written, which was not unexpected as English was not Alina’s first language.

The concern was that this was being used unfairly against Alina, and that it could therefore be considered to amount to discrimination as a result of her race.

It was discussed with Alina, who agreed with the viewpoint. She revealed that she lost her previous cleaning job as a result of her English language skills.

On that occasion it happened after she raised a concern regarding an unlawful deduction of wages when she was not paid.

With the fear history may repeat itself, our representative discussed with Alina the idea that she should raise a grievance.

A grievance was submitted on grounds that included race discrimination and unfair treatment.

Our representative asked for the disciplinary process to be suspended until the grievance was fully resolved, because if it was upheld it could have ramifications for that process. The employer agreed to the request.

At the grievance hearing our representative argued the disciplinary process Alina was facing was directly linked to her race and language skills, which was discriminatory.

He explained Alina’s passion for health and referred to her social media posts, her desire to help others lead a healthy lifestyle because she knew the benefits of it, and how she had genuinely wanted to help a colleague who initially asked for it.

The disciplinary case relied solely on the text messages sent by Alina. Her colleague was never interviewed for the disciplinary case.

Our representative provided responses from the colleague to some of the text messages, which showed she responded positively and jokingly to them.

The hearing chair was told the employee never told Alina she had made her feel uncomfortable, which would have given her an opportunity to address any concerns.

Our representative insisted denying Alina such an opportunity was grossly unfair because her intentions were honourable and she was given no indication her messages were ever considered inappropriate.

At the end of the comprehensive presentation of Alina’s grievance our representative was strong in his assertion the disciplinary process should be reviewed and cancelled.

He said it was Alina’s desired outcome and would suitably address all concerns she had.

The following week the hotel HR advisor held a discussion with our representative, and confirmed the disciplinary case would be cancelled.

Alina was delighted with the outcome.

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