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Employment Law Case Update: Walker v Arco Environmental Limited

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The case of Walker v Arco Environmental Limited is a good example of what can happen if, as an employer, you react inappropriately to an employee who falls under any of the protected characteristics. It also shows what can happen if you create a hostile environment in the work place due to news that you perceive as inconvenient to the business. 

Mrs Walker was employed as an Office Manager by Arco Environmental Limited from 13 November 2017 to 13 December 2017, following an interview and a three day trial period. On joining, she made it clear she wanted to obtain additional qualifications to progress her career.  

Mrs Walker had been working for Arco for three weeks when she announced she was pregnant; wanting to give Arco as much notice as possible for maternity cover arrangements. Arco had never dealt with a pregnant employee and lacked experience on how to handle it – but did have the benefit of expert advice via an online service.

On 11 December 2017, during a conversation with Mrs Rees, wife of the Arco owner, Mrs Walker was asked if she had been trying to get pregnant. Mrs Walker said that she had, before she took the job, but had stopped trying. Mrs Rees replied “Oh well, sh*t happens, it’s a new life.”

Mrs Walker was upset. She felt it was a derogatory comment towards her pregnancy as it would be causing Arco ‘sh*t’ to deal with. She became suspicious that Arco believed she’d taken the job while trying for a baby, or knowing she was pregnant, in order to obtain maternity payments.

On 11 December 2017, in a meeting with the Operations Director and Managing Director of Arco, Mrs Walker was asked whether she knew she was pregnant when she took the job. She was also told that she should “tread carefully” around Steve Rees, owner of Arco.

Mrs Walker began to feel ostracised by Mr and Mrs Rees; they would fail to interact with her as they believed the pregnancy would place additional pressures on the business.

On 13 December 2017, Mrs Walker attended a further meeting where a pregnancy risk assessment was carried out. Following the assessment, Arco wanted to amend Mrs Walker’s working hours, substantially increasing her travelling time to and from the office. The assessment further said Arco would like to consider changing Mrs Walker’s working days. The phrasing suggested the decision to amend her hours had already been made and would be enforced.

Later that day, Mrs Walker resigned from her role, referring to the hostile working environment that had been created following the announcement of her pregnancy. Mrs Walker brought claims of unfair dismissal and pregnancy discrimination before the Employment Tribunal (ET).

Although she did not have two years’ service she claimed her dismissal was automatically unfair as the principal reason was pregnancy or maternity. The ET found this was the case and upheld Mrs Walker’s claim of unfair dismissal.

The ET further found that the events which took place between 11 and13 December 2017 were discriminatory; that conduct of the meeting with the Operations Director and Managing Director amounted to less favourable treatment, and that the conduct of Mr and Mrs Rees in ostracising Mrs Walker was unfavourable treatment and harassment because of her pregnancy.

The meeting on 13 December 2017 and subsequent conduct regarding the risk assessment also continued to make Mrs Walker feel degraded and humiliated, forming part of the harassment. Mrs Walker was successful in her claims of pregnancy discrimination, unfair dismissal, failure to pay notice pay and failure to be provided with a written statement of particulars.

This case highlights the importance of treating pregnant workers fairly and supportively. Employers should be aware that any negative comments or remarks regarding pregnancy could be discriminatory. Bear in mind that should pregnancy, or any other protected characteristic, be the principal reason for a dismissal, the employee does not need two years service to bring an unfair dismissal claim.

If you have any questions about anything highlighted in this case, then please email our Employment team at employment@warnergoodman.co.uk

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.