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Employment Law Case Update: Marital Status Discrimination

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We spend the majority of our lives at work and so it can only be natural that we form close relationships with our colleagues, occasionally even romantic ones.  As an employer, you may wish to implement a policy regarding relationships at work; our Employment Law team review the case of Ms K Bacon v Advanced Fire Solutions which is a stark example on how NOT to deal with relationships at work.

Ms K Bacon joined Advanced Fire Solutions in 2005, becoming a Director in 2008. In the same year, she married fellow Director, Mr Bacon. In 2012 Mr Ellis joined the company and in 2017 became the Managing Director.

In August 2017, Ms Bacon informed Mr Bacon she wanted to separate. She assured him she could continue in her role at the company, though she did take time off in August to focus on her children and marriage. On her return, Mr Bacon insisted she continue to take time off to save the marriage, which she agreed to. On 1 September, without informing her, Mr Ellis had Ms Bacon’s access to the company’s accounting software removed. She was also removed as a signatory on the company’s HSBC account, again without her knowledge. A month later, in October, Mr Bacon told Ms Bacon that her job was still available when she was ready to go back and shortly after she was reinstated as a Director.

In November, Ms Bacon informed Mr Bacon that she wanted a divorce, after which she was removed from her position as a Director.

In early 2018, Ms Bacon was suspended pending an investigation into “misuse of company IT, email system and misuse of confidential and financial information”. The letter asked her to return IT equipment, including iPads which Ms Bacon claimed were gifts for the family. The Employment Tribunal (ET) heard that the police and a digital investigations firm conducted investigations and found no evidence of a data breach. In April 2018, Mr Bacon and Mr Ellis asked the police to conduct further investigations into the allegations against Ms Bacon. The police responded that no further action would be taken but Ms Bacon was not informed of this.

Ms Bacon raised a grievance with the company alleging harassment and victimisation. This was left unresolved. Ms Bacon wrote to the company saying the lack of clarity in the allegations made it impossible for her to submit a witness statement in support of her grievance. She was subsequently dismissed and the dismissal letter cited her failure to submit a witness statement and failure to return company property (including the family iPads) as evidence that Ms Bacon had refused to co-operate with the investigation. The letter claimed that the company had “no alternative than to conclude to its reasonable satisfaction that [Ms Bacon was] involved with the alleged misconduct”. Ms Bacon appealed her dismissal, which was rejected.

As evidence of discriminatory treatment, the ET heard that Ms Bacon did not receive dividends for the years 2016 or 2017 when she was a Director. Mr Ellis also admitted he allowed Mr Bacon to use company funds to pay for legal fees related to his divorce, even though the same opportunity was not given to Ms Bacon.

The ET held that Ms Bacon had been the victim of direct discrimination due to her marital status. It concluded that Mr Ellis had taken Mr Bacon’s side in the divorce and had distanced himself from Ms Bacon. The ET found that withholding dividend payments, disregarding her grievance, reporting her for theft, and allowing Mr Bacon to use company funds to pay for his divorce proceedings were all examples of less favourable treatment. The ET concluded that the reason for this less favourable treatment was that Ms Bacon was in the process of divorcing Mr Bacon. Mr Ellis could not offer an alternative explanation for this treatment and so the claim of direct discrimination based on marital and civil partner status was made out.

The ET also found that the commencement of legal proceedings to reclaim family iPads from Ms Bacon was “vindictive” and retaliation for Ms Bacon’s grievance in March. They therefore also upheld Ms Bacon’s claim of victimisation.

This case demonstrates how not to deal with the breakdown of a personal relationship in the workplace. It is good practice to have a standard policy in place to deal with personal relationships; how they are conducted during the relationship and how the company will deal with any breakdown, treating employees professionally and fairly - without the manifestation of personal loyalties.  

If you have any questions regarding this article, you can call our Employment team today on 023 8071 7717 or email employment@warnergoodman.co.uk.

This was previously part of our weekly Employment Law Newsletter. If you would like to subscribe, please email us at events@warnergoodman.co.uk or just fill in our subscription form.

ENDS

This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.