Hampstead woman tells tribunal of alleged racist discrimination
- Credit: Google Streetview / Sanju Pal
An award-winning charity worker from West Hampstead has taken her former employer to a tribunal, claiming she was unfairly dismissed due to her race and disability.
Sanju Pal, 39, is seeking more than £180,000 from professional services company Accenture UK Ltd, where she worked for just under 10 years.
She claims she consistently met or exceeded expectations, earning two promotions, until illness impacted her performance.
Instead of supporting her, she alleges the company sacked her – but kept on white staff who were performing at a similar level.
Accenture denies the claims and is being represented by employment law specialist Katherine Eddy, from 11KBW chambers, who cross-examined Ms Pal at length on Thursday, May 5.
She suggested Ms Pal had an "intemperate” demeanour and had attracted negative feedback over a period of years.
Ms Pal countered that many of the criticisms now being used to justify her sacking were never raised with her and the company had repeatedly praised her during the same period.
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Ms Pal began work as an analyst at Accenture in September 2009.
In 2011 she was promoted to consultant and in 2013 she was promoted to manager.
Each year, Accenture rated employees as performing above, below or on par with expectations.
Between 2009 and 2017, she was rated as above or on par in all but two years.
In 2011 she was rated “below”, but said she worked on “development points” and was then rated “significantly above” for the next two years in a row.
In 2016 she received no rating as he had taken a year’s leave of absence to focus on an education charity she had founded in 2009 called RISE.
Her work at the charity won her an Asian Women of Achievement Award in 2013 and a government Points of Light Award in 2020, for which she was praised by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Ms Pal said that in 2017 she began to suffer from sciatica and endometriosis, both of which caused her regular, chronic pain.
She said she also had depression and repeatedly developed ovarian cysts, all of which “had a long-term adverse impact on her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.
At one point in 2018, Accenture calculated she had only been available to work 62.4 per cent of the time.
The firm measured employees' "Time At Level" and said that if they were not promoted within four years, they should look at other opportunities inside of outside the firm.
Based on her TAL and her alleged "poor performance", Ms Pal was deemed to be "not progressing" and was sacked in July 2019.
The two parties disagree over whether her TAL was appropriately amended to account for her prolonged periods of sick leave, and Ms Pal contends that her diminished performance “cannot be separated” from her health conditions.
Ms Pal said in her legal filing that she was never told she was at risk of dismissal or placed on any formal performance management plan.
Accenture claimed it “regularly provided the claimant with feedback on her performance, together with clear direction on how to address performance concerns.”
In court, Ms Eddy put it to Ms Pal that Accenture’s policy was that career progression should be “self-directed” and that the firm would “fairly regularly dismiss a consultant after a single ‘not progressing’ rating".
“That was not the culture at the organisation at all,” said Ms Pal. “It’s a complete shock that you’re telling me that even now. I do not believe that to be correct or true.
“My understanding, having been at the organisation for almost ten years, was that you were very much able to respond to feedback at the time.”
Ms Eddy suggested Ms Pal had received persistent negative feedback about her “style” but had failed to act on it.
She showed Ms Pal an email from an HR worker to a manager in 2015, saying: “I have just had a very difficult, rude conversation with [Ms Pal] about me being off sick last week, which has left me quite upset.”
Ms Pal told the tribunal that the HR worker had failed to show up for a scheduled meeting, which she found “incredibly unprofessional”.
When they did speak, said Ms Pal: “I said to her: ‘That was not great, that you didn’t let me know that you weren’t going to turn up.' She has turned that into ‘rude and difficult’.
“I have reflected on this and I have thought to myself, is it particularly that when an Indian person raises anything to someone, if it at all comes across as criticism, then its aggressive?”
She told the tribunal that nobody had never raised the incident with her formally.
“I’m nothing but polite and respectful in all my interactions,” said Ms Pal. “That was the way it was throughout my entire performance. I do not agree that I did become rude or difficult.”
Cry for Help
Ms Eddy put it to Ms Pal that in 2018 she had “a serious blow-up" with a client, which required the intervention of senior managers.
Ms Pal said it was actually a dispute with two contractors who worked for the client, whereas the client had specifically asked for her to continue working for them.
“I consider myself to be blameless in the matter,” said Ms Pal. “It was an unprecedented situation where the contractors were actively trying to make my role redundant so that they could get the role.”
Ms Pal pointed to an email from her line manager which said she was “handling it very well”.
She was then questioned about a series of emails she had written in 2018, complaining that she had been requesting help for weeks with a visa application to attend a company training day in Ireland.
In the emails, she said the situation was “completely ridiculous” and she was “losing the will” and “struggling to maintain my composure”.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in all my years at Accenture,” she had written, copying in senior managers. She added that she was “sad and disappointed and extremely stressed out”.
Ms Eddy put it to Ms Pal that the messages were “intemperate and rude”.
“I think it was a signal that I was really under a lot of stress and it’s one email in my entire career,” said Ms Pal.
“I wouldn’t say it’s rude. I would say that there’s a lot of stress coming through in this email... It’s a cry for help.”
According to her legal claim, Ms Pal was asked in May 2019 to fill in for a senior manager and received feedback that she was “very organised, detailed and driven”.
A senior manager continued: “She has always been more than professional, including me and junior team members... She is a pleasure to work with and I hope we will be able to keep her on the project into the next fiscal year.”
But on July 3, 2019, she was called into a meeting and told she was being fired.
“My dismissal was completely unexpected and totally shattered me and my sense of identity,” she wrote in her witness statement.
She said life since her dismissal had been “miserable” and “a daily struggle”.
She said she suffered from insomnia and when she was able to sleep, she would wake up “short of breath and panicking and sometimes screaming”.
She accused Accenture of trying to assassinate her character.
The tribunal is due to continue into this week.
Accenture denies all the allegations, writing in its legal filing: “Despite the support offered to her, the claimant’s performance failed to improve to the standard required."