Woman says her dismissal was racist because her German heritage makes her “inherently noisy”

An academic who claims she was fired because of racist criticism of her “naturally loud voice” and passionate teaching style has won her case for unfair dismissal.

Dr Annette Plaut, who worked as a physicist at the University of Exeter for three decades, has been unfairly fired, according to an employment tribunal.

The speaker admitted that she was “inherently loud”, “naturally argumentative” in conversation, spoke with vigorous hand gestures, and was so passionate about physics that she couldn’t help herself. to bubble with excitement.

She was described as a “pot character” during the hearing.

But while many students and colleagues liked the teaching style of the University of Exeter scholar, some colleagues found her “bossy” and “very uncomfortable” to deal with, it was said. at the hearing.

Senior management “decided that Dr Plaut would no longer be tolerated”, subjected her to a disciplinary investigation into the charges she “shouted” against a doctoral student, then used it as a “pretext” to fire her , concluded the panel.

The experimental physics professor – a graphene expert who was the first woman in her department – is now in line to receive compensation after successfully suing the university for victimization, harassment and wrongful dismissal.

In Exeter court, Dr Plaut claimed her Eastern European Jewish heritage meant that she had “inherent characteristics of volume and a conversational style that involves an argumentative style of discussion involving interruptions. and many hand movements ”.

The scholar, whose parents left Germany before World War II, joined the university’s physics and astronomy department in 1990.

She insisted there was nothing she could do about it when she got aroused and her body language became demonstrative.

“Dr Plaut is passionate about physics,” the court said. “Although she may try to restrict her natural personality, she tends to emerge when she engages in a discussion of physics.

“She told her students that she was like that and that they shouldn’t be offended.

“Over the years some colleagues and students have found it somewhat overbearing, although Dr Plaut has told students and colleagues that she doesn’t mean anything by that.

“Some senior members of the department thought that Dr Plaut had been allowed for years to get away with behavior that really shouldn’t be tolerated.

“Others appreciated her contribution and accepted that she was not a rude person, even when she was loudly argued in the discussion.

“Dr. Plaut says any negativity towards her due to her interpersonal communication style is unconscious racism because it stems directly from her inherent cultural upbringing.

“She finds the suggestion that her volume is outrageous particularly offensive, and finds the application of the word to her a great insult.

To sum up the great weight of the evidence given to us, the vernacular expression “she is a pot person” is not inaccurate. “

The audience was told that in 2017 the university’s human resources department got involved in Dr Plaut’s teaching style and worked with staff to agree on wording for describe it to the students.

Dr Plaut took offense to being called “unusually strong” and insisted on being called “naturally strong”.

At this point, the court heard that there was friction with the department and “over time HR gradually became less and less tolerant of Dr Plaut.”

The panel learned that in January 2019, she had been suspended for serious misconduct following a “considerably exaggerated” claim that she had yelled at a student and pointed a “laser” in her eyes.

Dr Plaut insisted that she explained the scientific concept of saturation and used a desk lamp on the student’s face to demonstrate it. However, she apologized for the incident.

In a letter sending him a written warning, the university “accepted that Dr Plaut’s loudness was largely unintentional, but expressed concern over his apparent inability to moderate it.”

At a return-to-work meeting in April of that year, the panel heard her relationship with the university’s senior management deteriorate further when she suggested that one of her bosses was not open. to criticism in his role as equality officer.

The bosses “seized” that comment to initiate further disciplinary action against her, the court was told, even though the academic concerned did not want it to be pursued.

When, shortly after, another student of Dr Plaut told the university that he wanted to change professors, the bosses falsely told him that he could only do so if he complained about her.

As a result, Dr Plaut was faced with a new allegation of “frequently yelling at meetings with a doctoral student, causing them stress and anxiety.”

The court concluded that senior management, including Janice Kay, the rector of the university, wanted to get rid of Dr Plaut.

“Clearly (they) all wanted Dr Plaut fired and set this in motion,” the report said.

The physicist was again suspended and fired following a disciplinary hearing in December 2019.

Finding the university guilty of harassment, victimization and unfair dismissal, Paul Housego, the labor judge, criticized the way such a long-time scholar could have been treated.

“This is a very large organization, with a very high reputation, and one should expect high professional standards in the treatment of the careers of its academics,” he said.

“This obligation is all the greater when dealing with someone who has spent 30 years working for them. Senior management had decided that Dr Plaut would no longer be tolerated.

“The good things she had done over the years had no weight.

“The court has no doubts, but for some people, Dr Plaut’s approach to life was very uncomfortable, but that does not take into account that this is a facade behind which the evidence is that of a longtime dedicated and caring scholar. “

Justice Housego suggested that one way to deal with Dr. Plaut’s perceived screams was to receive help and the ability to change his approach.

Dr Plaut – whose further allegations of racial and gender discrimination were rejected by the panel – will now receive compensation at a later date.

A spokesperson for the University of Exeter said: “We believe there are inaccuracies in this judgment and we will appeal the decision to the Labor Appeal Tribunal.”