Why Mrs Briscoe's voice didn't fit

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The Independent Online
THE solicitor leant forward towards the witness giving evidence before the employment tribunal. 'I want to ask you,' he said, in his posh accent, 'how you found the grammatical integrity of Mrs Briscoe on the telephone?' Grammatical integrity? A couple of feet from him, Jean Briscoe stiffened. As well she might, in these extraordinary circumstances. For Mrs Briscoe, born in Birmingham, and growing up, not unnaturally, with a Birmingham accent, had been sacked by a Birmingham engineering company from her job as a telephonist after six weeks largely, apparently, for the offence of talking Brum over the phone. Convinced that she would not have been sacked like this had she not been black, Jean Briscoe upped and took the company, First In Service Ltd, to a tribunal, which sat - in Birmingham - on Thursday.

But what is good English? This is dangerous territory with few marked paths, as the witnesses for the company quickly found. 'I feel,' said John Jenkins, a director of First In Service, on being asked to judge on Jean Briscoe's grammatical integrity, 'that when in reception she has a short time to put over the view of the company, and maybe it's 'Yer' and 'Norrin' and 'Ain't'. I just felt that it's a little bit strong or grammatically wrong.'

The solicitor asked for more examples. 'They're terms like 'Ang on', 'Just a minute', 'OK',' said Mr Jenkins and, a few minutes later, 'It's just this heavy Brummie accent which I believe gave an unprofessional sound.' And yet Mr Jenkins had a pronounced Birmingham accent himself.

In his slightly nasal tones he began to talk of the meeting at which Jean Briscoe had been so suddenly sacked. 'She then accused that we had not given her sufficient training,' said Mr Jenkins, judge of grammar. 'I suggested it wasn't particularly her keyboard competence that was the issue, and the only training I could foresee would be, perhaps, elocution lessons.'

Mrs Briscoe cross-examined him a little later on what he had said at this interview. 'My words were somethink like 'the only training we could give you were maybe elocution lessons',' said Mr Jenkins. Many a moral philosopher has pointed out how hard it is not to commit the sins of which we accuse others. One of Mr Jenkins's chief accusations against Mrs Briscoe was that she used callers' first names inappropriately. Yet throughout her cross-examination of him, she called him, properly, 'Mr Jenkins' and he called her 'Jean'. Despite Mr Jenkins's objections to Mrs Briscoe's accent, no one clearly warned her that she was in danger of being sacked if she did not talk proper.

Then came that day, 7 May last year, when Mrs Briscoe's lack of grammatical integrity reached such a pitch that it could no longer be tolerated. The final offence was this. The managing director, one Ken Egmore, was rung at work by his wife, Diane Egmore, who is the company's financial director. Jean Briscoe allegedly put the call through with these words: 'It's your wife', or, as some claim, even 'It's yer wife'. These words were, of course, true, clear and grammatically correct. They were not, however, acceptable to the Egmores. The telephonists at Buckingham Palace are said to connect the Queen Mother to the Queen with the words 'It's Her Majesty, Your Majesty', and it may have been that formality along these lines was what was required of Mrs Briscoe. It was probable, however, as the firm's personnel manager told the tribunal, that Mrs Briscoe had never been warned of this. Mr Egmore, on hearing the words 'It's your wife', could take no more. 'I was taken aback by a call put through to me in that fashion from the financial director,' he said. 'My ambition was that before the day ended, the following day would commence without Jean's voice receiving our calls.'

He then asked the personnel director, a woman, to break the news because: 'Female speaking to female is a recognition of sensitivity.' Mrs Briscoe was not, however, impressed by the sensitivity with which the company sacked her. She had three children. The job mattered. She burst into tears. Then Mr Jenkins made his recommendation of elocution lessons. 'I don't know whether it's your Birmingham, West Indian or Cockney accent,' he said. 'Unfortunately it isn't suitable for our telephonist.'

So Mrs Briscoe left First In Service Ltd and began, single-handed, to take it to the tribunal. She could not bring a case of unfair dismissal because she had not been employed for the necessary two years. The charge of racial discrimination was her only option. That was not, said the company's solicitor, Roger Field, a case she had proved.

'You have been able to listen to Mrs Briscoe,' Mr Field told the tribunal, 'and hear first-hand the sort of lapses about which evidence has been given. She consistently failed to end words ending in 'ing'. You have heard her . . . talk of 'im, rather than him. You have heard her confuse the singular and plural.' And then there had been this alleged trespass on grammatical integrity: 'It's your wife.' 'That,' said Mr Field, 'led directly to the demise of the applicant.'

Demise? I looked at Mrs Briscoe with alarm, but she was still breathing, even when the tribunal found against her. She had not proved that the company had discriminated against her because of her race. 'But,' said the chairman, 'my colleagues and I are not happy with the manner in which she was treated. The tribunal considers that the manner in which Mrs Briscoe was dealt with was shabby.'

Jean Briscoe went back to her family feeling bitterly let down, clinging to the hope that she will work again. Ken Egmore denied that his company treated people shabbily. But 'I think,' he said, 'there's some embarrassment'.

(Photograph omitted)