Firefighter was sacked after calling short, gay colleague 'half a man'

Firefighter who was sacked after calling short, gay colleague ‘half a man’ because ‘of his size’ loses unfair dismissal claim as judge rules it could have been interpreted as homophobic

  • Phillip Staines called his colleague of 16 years ‘Arthur’ in reference to his height 
  • The firefighter insisted that he and Jonny Metcalfe had nickames for each other
  • Judge ruled he belittled another worker by saying: ‘You’ve’ got her well trained’

A firefighter who was sacked after calling a gay colleague half a man ‘because of his height,’ has lost an unfair dismissal claim as a judge ruled it could have been interpreted as homophobic. 

Phillip Staines told an employment tribunal he nicknamed fellow fireman Jonny Metcalfe ‘Arthur’ because he was half his size – adding that the two had known each other for 16 years.

But Mr Metcalfe took it to be a derogatory reference to his sexuality.

An employment tribunal heard that when a colleague asked Mr Staines why he called him ‘half a man’, Mr Staines replied ‘well, I can’t call him Stumpy or Dwarf’.

When concerned colleagues flagged his behaviour to bosses at North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, Mr Staines claimed it was ‘just banter’.

Phillip Staines told an employment tribunal he nicknamed fellow fireman Jonny Metcalfe ‘Arthur’ because he was half his size. However, following an exchange at Grassington fire station, Mr Metcalfe said he took the nickname as a derogatory reference to his sexuality

He denied that it was in any way a derogatory homophobic reference to Mr Metcalfe’s sexuality, adding: ‘I call him Arthur, Arthur man, half a man… because of his size.

‘I can’t call him Stumpy or anything else. It’s just banter.. We were just laughing and joking.

‘He came into the recreation room and I said “Hi Arthur”. It’s not degrading.’

Mr Staines added that following this exchange at the station in Grassington, North Yorks, he then offered Mr Metcalfe ‘a brew’.

However, the tribunal heard Mr Metcalfe told the investigation the conversation had left him ‘offended and emotionally upset’ and he believed it was degrading as it referred to him being gay.

The fire service investigation concluded that Mr Staines had not intended it to be homophobic but ‘it is recognised that Mr Metcalfe has reasonably interpreted the wording to have a homophobic connotation and it has caused offence’.

As a result, a full disciplinary hearing was held, where Mr Staines again claimed it was simply ‘banter’.

The tribunal, in Leeds, was told: [Mr Staines] stated that he had said “Arthur, do you want a cup of tea.” It was banter as he had known Mr Metcalfe as a friend/colleague for 16 years.

‘He said “Arthur” because Mr Metcalfe is half the size of him. He has never said half a man as a derogatory comment.’

After hearing Mr Staines had also made degrading comments to a female colleague, Area Manager Jonathan Dyson decided to summarily dismiss him on the basis he had breached the service’s Code of Conduct, Bullying and Harassment policy and organisational values.

He noted that Mr Staines had previously been warned for using inappropriate language and his conduct ‘did not demonstrate self-improvement after his previous written warning’.

Nor did it ‘demonstrate understanding in relation to dignity at work and inappropriate use of language’.

When Mr Staines lost an appeal against his dismissal he launched his claim for unfair dismissal and breach of contract against North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service.

Employment Judge Buckley ruled that it was ‘reasonable’ for Mr Metcalfe to have viewed the comments as a reference to his sexual orientation and taken offence.

She said: ‘It appears obvious to me that ‘half a man’ might be interpreted by a gay man as an offensive comment on their sexual orientation. In my view [Mr Staines] ought also to have appreciated that.’

She also ruled that Mr Staines had belittled a female worker by joking to a colleague ‘you’ve’ got her well trained’ when she answered the telephone.

The tribunal dismissed his claim of unfair dismissal.

However, the judge added: ‘In my view, the conduct was certainly sufficient serious to merit dismissal with notice because the claimant was under a final written warning, but I find that the respondent was not entitled to dismiss the claimant without notice.’

As a result the tribunal awarded Mr Staines his notice pay plus 10 per cent for breach of contract. 

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