UK

Lecturer unfairly sacked from role for using too many question marks in texts, tribunal finds

A university lecturer has won a £15,000 payout after being unfairly sacked from his role for ‘aggressive’ behaviour – by sending too many question marks in text messages.

Dr Binoy Sobnack, a physics lecturer at the University of Loughborough, created an ‘intimidating tone’ with his use of ‘multiple punctuation marks’, a tribunal heard.

He was removed from his role as warden of a hall of residence following complaints by fellow staff.

An employment tribunal has now found Dr Sobnack, who is still employed as a lecturer at the university, was unfairly dismissed from his hall of residence role.

However a judge did rule that excessive use of punctuation is ‘unnecessarily aggressive’ and that by failing to modify the tone of his texts, Dr Sobnack was guilty of ‘culpable and blameworthy’ conduct. 

Dr Binoy Sobnack, a physics lecturer at the University of Loughborough, created an ‘intimidating tone’ with his use of ‘multiple punctuation marks’, a tribunal heard

The hearing in Leicester was told that Dr Sobnack – who has a PhD from Cambridge – started at Loughborough as a lecturer in Theoretical Condensed Matter Physics in 1999.

In 2002 he was appointed Warden of Harry French Hall of Residence, which he ran with the help of sub-wardens, who were usually PhD students at the university.

In July 2018 one of them made a complaint against Dr Sobnack, accusing him of saying that his imminent departure from the role would be ‘the best thing to happen to the Hall’.

Examples of the texts multiple-question mark texts shared at the tribunal 

On April 4, 2019, Dr Sobnack sent a text to a sub-warden saying: ‘Why don’t you listen?????? Stick to what has been decided!’

On May 8. 2019 there had been a series of text messages, including one from Dr Sobnack, which said: ‘Do you have to stay for dinner????’. 

During the same conversation, he said: ‘And you got the invitation today??’. 

In April the following year another sub-warden accused him of sending her ‘aggressive’ messages.

These included a text saying: ‘Why don’t you listen?????? Stick to what has been decided!’ and another – when she informed him she had to attend a meeting – which read ‘Do you have to stay for dinner????’.

The sub-warden complained the messages were humiliating and that Dr Sobnack created an ‘inappropriate’ tone by using so many question marks.

The tribunal heard that a university investigation into the complaint found the ‘tone and manner’ of some of the messages were ‘unhelpfully emotive’.

No formal disciplinary action was taken against the lecturer.

However he was warned by Dr Manuel Alonso, the university’s Director of Student Services, to adopt a different tone in future.

Judge Richard Adkinson wrote: ‘The use of multiple exclamation or question marks could well change or influence how a recipient might perceive a text message, and might make an otherwise neutral text appear aggressive, intimidating or suggesting disbelief.

‘In cross-examination, (Dr Dobnack) accepted that his tone was not appropriate on at least on occasion.

‘I believe that it must also be an inevitable conclusion that, as warden, he knew that he had to be careful about how he communicated.

‘He had for years managed sub-wardens who themselves may well be new to the University and embarking upon a very different and potentially stressful new academic stage.

‘As a warden managing several sub-wardens, he would have to have known, and over the years have learnt, of the importance of the tone of his communications when working with subordinates and managing them.

An employment tribunal has now found Dr Sobnack, who is still employed as a lecturer at the university (pictured), was unfairly dismissed from his secondary role

An employment tribunal has now found Dr Sobnack, who is still employed as a lecturer at the university (pictured), was unfairly dismissed from his secondary role

‘Dr Sobnack did not suggest it was an accident he used multiple question marks in the texts. It must have been deliberate.

‘He must have wanted to convey a particular sub-text because they have no other linguistic function.

‘He must have understood when typing out text messages, the subtext that would be conveyed by the use of multiple punctuation marks and of the tone that they would convey.’

In October 2019 the university received another ‘strikingly similar’ complaint from a sub-warden at the hall about Dr Sobnack, the third in 18 months.

The sub-warden claimed his behaviour and communication style was ‘aggressive and confrontational’ and alleged he was trying to control her whereabouts even when she was not on duty.

She cited one text in relation to concerns for the welfare of an unnamed student, which read: ‘You tried to see [X] only once yes yet again? It is a pastoral matter?’

The tribunal was told that given the repeated complaints, Dr Alonso decided Dr Sobnack was guilty of unprofessional conduct and decided to sack him as warden.

He was removed from his role in March 2020 and then sued the university – for whom he still teaches – for unfair dismissal.

Judge Adkinson concluded that the university’s decision to sack him was wrong because many of the allegations made against him were unproven and in the latest instance had not even been investigated.

However, in finding in his favour, the judge ruled that Dr Sobnack had contributed to his dismissal.

In relation to the text regarding the student, Judge Adkinson said it was ‘brusque, blunt and unnecessarily aggressive in tone’.

‘In context, it cannot sensibly be read as a genuine question,’ he said. 

‘It makes no effort to engage. It has the same tenor of the messages that on each occasion resulted in Dr Alonso giving informal advice to Mr Sobnack.

‘He had been advised to watch his tone in his text communications. He had ignored it.

‘That is culpable and blameworthy conduct that contributed to everything that happened.’

Judge Adkinson reduced Dr Sobnack’s compensation by 25 per cent to £14,429.22.


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