Simon Isherwood, the conductor with West Midlands Trains (WMT) who lost his job after asking whether such a thing as ‘black privilege’ exists in African countries like Ghana (which is 95% black), has given an interview to the Mail in which he describes the ordeal he’s been put through. I know a bit about Simon’s case because the Free Speech Union helped him bring a case against WMT in the Employment Tribunal. Earlier this week, the judge found that Simon had been unfairly dismissed and he is now in line for a five figure pay-out. Here’s how the interview begins:
Railway manager Simon Isherwood was so passionate about his job with West Midlands Trains, he was known to his line manager as ‘Mr. Northampton.’
There was nothing he didn’t know about train services to and from the market town.
Starting his career more than 11 years ago as a train conductor, Mr. Isherwood, 60, had risen through the ranks – twice winning awards along the way for going beyond the call of duty in customer service.
As manager of a diverse team of around 25 conductors, he liked to think of himself as someone who has always treated everyone fairly and equally regardless of colour, creed, gender or sexuality.
It was his idea to invite everyone in his team to take part in a morale-boosting ‘feel-good’ video during lockdown, set to the Billy Ocean song When The Going Gets Tough, which attracted 4,400 views on You Tube.
When the company then asked him to put forward two conductors for a poster campaign welcoming commuters back after lockdown, Mr. Isherwood’s first choice was a young man from Pakistan – simply because he was his best employee.
“I loved my job and there was nothing I wouldn’t have done for that company,” says Mr. Isherwood, proud of the way he as a manager judged others on merit and job performance alone.
“From the day I started I’d never had anything but promotion, praise and awards. They knew that if something went wrong I’d be the first one on the scene.”
So Mr. Isherwood was devastated when he was sacked by West Midlands Trains from his £49,000-a-year job for gross misconduct at a disciplinary hearing in March last year.
His crime? He’d forgotten to turn off his microphone following a diversity and inclusion online webinar, which he attended voluntarily at home after his morning shift at the station, on the subject of ‘white privilege’.
To his acute embarrassment, other managers – still logged on after the team talk ended – overheard Mr. Isherwood saying to his wife: “I couldn’t be a**ed because I thought, ‘You know what, I’ll just get f•••ing angry.’”
The private conversation went on: “You know what I really wanted to ask?… and I wish I had, do they have black privilege in other countries? So, if you’re in Ghana?”
Suspended the same day following a complaint by a manager from sister company East Midlands Trains, which organised the webinar, a mortified Mr. Isherwood apologised profusely to his bosses for the microphone lapse, his swearing and any unintended offence.
He insisted the first part of the conversation did not relate to the webinar at all but was in response to a note his wife had placed in front of him, asking, ‘Have you phoned the oven man?’ because their appliance was broken.
Yes, he admitted, he’d felt a little annoyed and insulted by some aspects of the webinar, presented by an outside consultant who was white, which seemed – to him at least – to suggest that all white people are born inherently racist.
His question about ‘black privilege’ – he maintained – was not intended as criticism or mockery of the webinar, but as a genuine one intended to help him understand better.
“We’d been asked to think of questions and I was just doing what I was told,” he says.