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Employment Law Case Update: Sex Based Discrimination and Harassment

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Discrimination in the workplace continues to be a leading cause for Employment Tribunal claims, and some situations are easily avoidable.  Our Employment Law team today reviews the case of Miss S Veitch and Miss N Sobihy v Stessa Leisure Holdings Ltd [2019] in which the tribunal considered sex based discrimination and harassment following various comments and actions from a male manager towards female employees. 

In 2018 Mr Whitelaw joined Stessa Leisure Holdings, a gym management company, as a business development manager. Within a couple weeks of his appointment he made comments indicating he did not believe women should be in management roles. Miss Veitch, a general manager, claimed Mr Whitelaw told her that she and the other two general managers, who were also women, “just rabble on and are too emotional” and that “if he were in charge, things would be run differently”.

Not long after this incident Stessa underwent a restructure. The general managers and club hosts/ receptionists were assembled in a meeting and informed that their roles were being made redundant. Those who wished to remain with the company were given twenty-four hours to decide whether they wanted to apply for new roles and be interviewed by Mr Whitelaw.

Both Miss Veitch and Miss Sobihy expressed concerns about being interviewed by Mr Whitelaw to Mr Evans, the operations director. Miss Sobihy said she would not go for an interview because, in light of Mr Whitelaw’s comments about women in management, she believed she would be discriminated against. Miss Sobihy was not given the opportunity to be interviewed by anyone else and was made redundant with immediate effect. Miss Veitch was told by Mr Evans she needed to choose whose side [she is] on, if [she wants] to stay in the company”. Miss Veitch decided to remain with the company after it was agreed that a new role in customer retentions would be created for her. 

Within a week of announcing the restructure, three men were appointed to “new” club manager roles, which had been created to replace the now redundant general manager positions. One appointee was an internal candidate, a male club host/receptionist who had been appointed to the new role without being interviewed. The other two were external candidates: two men who had been interviewed and offered the position by Mr Whitelaw.

That weekend, Mr Whitelaw sent a Facebook message to Miss Veitch commenting on her appearance and the appearance of her partner. She was very upset with this comment and reported it to Mr Evans. In a meeting Mr Whitelaw apologised to Miss Veitch but she did not believe he was genuine. She left the meeting very upset and no longer willing to work with Mr Whitelaw. Mr Evans said she could escalate the matter to HR but that things would get “messy”. He offered the option of redundancy, pressuring her to make a decision in a short time. Deciding she was not comfortable working with Mr Whitelaw, Miss Veitch opted for redundancy. 

Miss Veitch brought claims against the company for harassment, direct discrimination, and unfair dismissal. Miss Sobihy also brought claims of harassment and direct discrimination.

The Employment Tribunal (ET) found that the comments by Mr Whitelaw did amount to harassment of both women. It found the comments “contained sweeping, derogatory statements about female managers… and drew on disparaging stereotypes of women as being too emotional.’” The comments were unwanted and were reasonably perceived by Miss Veitch and Miss Sobihy as creating a hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.”

Miss Veitch was also successful in her claim of direct discrimination based on sex. The ET was able to conclude from several facts that Miss Veitch had been selected for redundancy because she was a woman. For instance, Mr Whitelaw had made disparaging comments about women in management, and was influential in the decision to make Miss Veitch and the other female general managers redundant. He had also arranged to interview two male candidates for the new club manager positions before the incumbent general managers were informed of their redundancy, and appointed a third man without an interview. Miss Veitchs claim for unfair dismissal was also successful.

The company was ordered to pay £19,500 to Miss Veitch and Miss Sobihy.

This case is an example of an employer failing in its duty to protect its employees from discrimination and harassment. Under the Equality Act 2010, employers have a duty to ensure employees are not denied opportunities or made redundant because of their sex or any other protected characteristic. Employers should have a policy in place that states their commitment to equal opportunities and anti-discrimination practices and that outlines a procedure the employer will follow if an allegation of harassment or discrimination is made. Employers should also ensure that managers understand when behaviour may amount to discrimination or harassment and their responsibilities to prevent such behaviour in the workplace. 

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.