One of the bastions of British soap opera has seemingly become tired of your run-of-the-mill torrid affaire/grisly murder/dodgy dealings stories and for a bit of dramatic spice has turned instead to the world of employment law. While as lawyers we already know that there is little which makes more compelling viewing than a juicy discrimination claim or a bizarre disciplinary, maybe Coronation Street is about to show everyone else.
In her first big break actress Katie Redford was cast as Bethany Platt, the 14 year-old grand-daughter of, well, someone else. ITV issued a trumpeting press release last week that stated new arrival Katie’s age as 19. A 19 year-old playing 14? The world of television and film has always had a funny way of looking at age. Remember “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”? Sean Connery played Harrison Ford’s father, when he was only 12 years Indy’s senior. I will not even touch on television shows based in American High Schools, where actors often appear well into their 30′s before being able to access the emotional heft required to portray an “average” American teenager.
However, due to the detective work of dedicated fans, it was discovered last week that Katie is actually 25. As the internet clamour started to grow, (who cares enough, really?) the Corrie producers decided to “re-cast” the role, effectively sacking Katie before she had filmed a scene. Her agent has since admitted that Katie auditioned as a 19 year-old, but that it was “not necessarily her idea”, she had just gone along with it. “Everyone in the industry does it all the time, daahlings” said Joan Collins, 29.
To summarise this hard-hitting storyline, we therefore have an employee who has been “de-cast”, if there is such a word, either for being too old to play the part she was only weeks earlier recruited for, or for lying about her age during the recruitment process.
If the producers went for the first reason, then we have the potential for a few episodes following the twists and turns of a discrimination claim. To dismiss on the basis that the employee is too old for the job would clearly raise questions of age discrimination. While it is possible to objectively justify age discrimination, it may be difficult to show this here, where the producers thought Katie was perfect for the role right up to the point they discovered her true age. The only thing which has changed is the knowledge of her actual age – she still looks, talks and walks the same as the person who triumphed over no doubt stiff competition to win the part, i.e. Katie thought to be 19. Maybe it is a future concern – that at 25 she can pass for a television 14, but at 27 she could probably not get away with a day under 20, a rate of ageing too implausible even for Coronation Street. I would not want to be the person explaining that one to her.
The second reason, the lie, (or is it merely “artistic licence” in the world of television?) may leave us with less to chew on. It is well established that if an employer discovers that an employee lied during the recruitment process, it may dismiss him. But what about the lie which makes no difference to the appointment? Let us assume that Katie was auditioned because the producers thought she was 19. Therefore she got so far under false pretences, agreed. But from the point where she was sifted out of that audition at the cost of a host of other hopefuls who actually were 19 (or were they all pretending too?) and into the role, that was irrelevant – she got the part because she fitted the part, not because of her age. The age lie became immaterial. Is it then still grounds to dismiss or is its irrelevance an open invitation to a Tribunal to conclude that the real reason was something else?
While lying about age may not be a common recruitment scenario outside the entertainment industry, misleading a potential employer in a CV or during an interview is certainly not unheard of. If the lie were discovered only after years of valuable service, the employer could clearly take a pragmatic view and leave the employee in post. But in the end, a deliberate lie is a deliberate lie and to say that you could not dismiss fairly for it, even years later, is in my view the same as saying that you cannot dismiss someone for stealing because you didn’t initially notice the money was missing. Deceit at interview (as opposed to ordinary hype and self-promotion) undermines the most fundamental requirements of trust and confidence in the employment relationship, and the view that it didn’t justify dismissal because in the end it made no difference is a very unattractive one. Do let me know if you disagree.