Harassment

Watch your mouth – how employers can be discriminatory without realising it

Discrimination can come in many forms, but can be much subtler than you realise. When it comes to off-the-cuff comments, employers need to be careful of how things come across to other parties. This was the case with a recent claim made by a 59-year-old employee who was told she’d be more suited to a ‘traditional’ office. So where did the employer go wrong?

The background 

In February 2015 Ms Gomes (G) began working as an administration assistant for Henworth, which traded as Winkworth Estate Agents. G had been working for another agent in the Winkworth franchise since 2009, and had been transferred to Henworth from there.

A year later, in February 2016, G had a performance review with the company’s lettings director, who informed her that she needed to be more careful with her work. The meeting upset G, and she subsequently spoke to her line manager who spoke to Graham Gold, one of the directors.

Shortly after this G met with Gold, who told her that he felt she had not been paying attention to new methods of working, and had become preoccupied with an old piece of software that was now rarely used by the company.

A month later, in March 2016, Gold called G in for another meeting and told her: “This marriage isn’t working.” G claimed that, when asked about this comment, Gold said that G had typed and sent an erroneous letter to a solicitor, including referring to the deceased in question as ‘Mrs’ rather than ‘Mr’. Gold stated that, subsequent to this, a note would be placed on her performance record.

Additionally, Gold then told G she would be “better suited to a traditional estate agency” which G interpreted as Gold alluding to her being too old for that particular office. When G asked Gold what he meant by his comment, he suggested she “sleep on it and decide what you want to do,” which G interpreted as Gold recommending she consider leaving the company. According to G, at the time of the meeting she was planning to stay with the business until retiring at 65.

Not long after the meeting, G took sick leave for work-related stress and filed a grievance against Gold. The outcome of this grievance concluded that G should have more training opportunities, as well as stating that the original meeting with Gold had been carried out in an unsatisfactory manner. Gomes was not pleased with this outcome, however, and not only appealed but also tendered her resignation.

The tribunal allowed G’s claim for age discrimination, stating that the original comment ‘better suited to a traditional estate agency’ was unlikely to have been said to a younger employee, and was therefore a direct reference to her age. As well as this, the tribunal also allowed G’s claims for age-related harassment and constructive unfair dismissal.

The person put in charge of handling G’s grievance was also called into question, as they had compromised the meeting’s impartiality by allowing Gold to be present – despite Gold being the subject of the complaint.

In conclusion

This case is a harsh reminder that employers need to be careful with what they say to, or about, their employees. An age discrimination claim can arise from comments that allude to an employee’s age, even if it is not directly referred to – so think before you speak.

If you would like to discuss this within your organisation, please contact Alison.

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President of the Employment Tribunals announces increase in the Vento Bands

Employers have been hit with a timely reminder that they need to make sure they’re taking all possible steps to prevent workplace discrimination. After a recent consultation, the President of the Employment Tribunals has announced that, in the event that they suffer from workplace discrimination, employees can now receive higher compensation for ‘injury to feelings.’

So, what’s it all about?

Compensation for ‘injury to feelings’ is split into four categories – known as Vento Bands – and these vary depending on the discrimination’s severity. From 11 September 2017, the increased Vento bands will be:

  • £800 to £8,400 for less serious cases;
  • £8,400 to £25,200 for serious cases; and
  • £25,200 to £42,000 for the most serious cases.

As well as this, the Employment Tribunal can award over £42,000 in exceptional cases, but it’s still unclear as to how it defines this. Most important, however, is that compensation under this category could be unlimited.

Stick and stones may break your bones, but, in this case, words can definitely hurt. Employers need to stay up to date with their equal opportunities and anti-bullying and harassment policies – as well as implementing regular diversity training – if they’re going to avoid costly discrimination cases.

For more information or help with any Employment Tribunal matters please contact Alison.

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Was the suspension of a teacher a neutral act and, if not, did it amount to a breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence?

The High Court case of Agoreyo v London Borough of Lambeth, available here, is clear on this matter.  In August 2017 they set out that suspension is not a neutral act and an improper suspension can amount to a breach of the above implied term. They also said that a breach could amount to a ‘repudiatory breach’, i.e. be sufficient in itself to destroy the employment relationship and entitle the employee to bring a claim.

The background

Mrs Agoreyo (who was the employee) worked as a primary school teacher for the London Borough of Lambeth.  A number of her pupils had significant behavioural issues and she had made numerous requests to the school for additional support.  However, before all the measures could be put in place Mrs Agoreyo was suspended. This followed three incidents where she had to use a degree of force to get two of these pupils to behave. The allegations suggested that the degree of force used went beyond those considered reasonable under the Education and Inspections Act 2006.

The suspension letter said:

  • the employee was suspended on normal pay;
  • suspension was a precautionary act pending a full investigation into allegations, during which the employee would be given full opportunity to provide her account of events; and
  • the suspension was a “neutral action and not a disciplinary action” and was to “allow the investigation to be conducted fairly”.

However, what sets this case apart, was that, before the decision to suspend, the employee was not asked for her comments on the allegations. Similarly, her employer failed to suggest that it had considered other alternatives to suspension.

Mrs Agoreyo resigned and brought a claim against the employer in the County Court for breach of contract. She argued that suspension was not reasonable or necessary.

Whilst the initial County Court hearing felt that London Borough of Lambeth was bound to suspend Mrs Agoreyo, after receiving reports of the allegations against her, and had “reasonable and proper cause” (to protect the children), Mrs Agoreyo appealed to the High Court.

The High Court disagreed. They felt that the employer was not bound to suspend Mrs Agoreyo and did not feel that it was obvious that there were no other alternatives. Furthermore, the employer had clearly stated in its suspension letter that its purpose was not to protect children but to ensure a fair investigation.

The High Court found that:

  • there was no evidence of any attempt to understand the employee’s version of events prior to the decision to suspend;
  • there was no evidence of any consideration of alternatives to suspension; and
  • the letter of suspension did not explain why an investigation could not be conducted fairly without the need for suspension

As a result they concluded that, given the potential stigma associated with suspension and the potential impact on future career prospects, suspension was not a neutral act, at least in the context of a qualified professional in a vocation, such as a teacher.

The suspension amounted to a breach of the implied duty of trust and confidence.

Employers must remember that even (in cases where the conduct is extremely serious, suspension must never be a knee-jerk reaction and the employer must carefully and pro-actively consider what the true purpose of a suspension would be and whether there might be any alternative.

Our advice is always to contact a qualified professional to help support and guide through disciplinary investigations and matters. You can contact Alison here.

 

 

 

 

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The Supreme Court has ruled that employment tribunal fees are unlawful

The government suffered a heavy defeat on 26th July after the Supreme Court ruled that employment tribunal fees are unlawful and the government will now have to repay up to £32m to claimants, relating to claims dating back to April 2013.

Brought forward by the Unison union Lord Reed, the judgment said that the fees were unlawful because of their effects on access to justice. Introduced in 2013 and costing between £390 and £1200, the fees have been said to prevent access to justice for workers unable to fund their case.

“The making of the Fees Order was not a lawful exercise of those powers, because the prescribed fees interfere unjustifiably with the right of access to justice under both the common law and EU law, frustrate the operation of Parliamentary legislation granting employment rights, and discriminate unlawfully against women and other protected groups.”

While the fees were brought in by the government to reduce the number of malicious and weak cases, after 3 years there had been a 79% reduction in cases brought forward.

Discrimination cases cost more for claimants because of the complexity and time hearings took. The Supreme Court found this was indirectly discriminatory because a higher proportion of women would bring discrimination cases.

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis has said: “This is absolutely a tremendous victory, it’s probably the biggest victory of employment rights in this country.”

So what now?

In order to deal with this massive backlog of repayment and claims the Presidents of the Employment Tribunals have issued Case Management Orders.

The Order states that all cases and applications arising from the Unison case, or applications for reimbursement of fees, shall be made in accordance with administrative arrangements to be announced by the Ministry of Justice and HMCTS shortly… We wait to see what happens next!

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Can too many Tinder tales at work cause trouble?

Love is in the air as Valentine’s Day makes an appearance for another year. Dating and love in the modern world has changed dramatically over the past decade and sometimes it’s hard to keep up with what’s appropriate for the workplace. Hearing about employees online dating experiences might make for funny morning coffee conversations but where should the line be drawn, legally, for discussion of Tinder tales in the workplace.

It’s true that online dating is much more accepted but hearing about it constantly at work could lead to something a bit more sinister.

An interesting article we came across talks about a self-confessed Tinder addict amongst their subscribers.

“Her colleagues are often privy to her sexting exploits (text messaging someone in the hope of having a sexual encounter with them later) and the net results. Most of them find her tales entertaining but our subscriber has noticed that there are one or two employees who are clearly unimpressed, although they’ve never actually objected.”

The question of whether or not there is a problem here can be considered with the Equality Act 2010. It states that an employee can be considered to be unlawfully harassing another if they engage in any unwanted conduct of a sexual nature or create an intimidating or offensive environment.

In this circumstance, if one of the employees is offended by, or could potentially issue a tribunal claim over, what they consider offensive behaviour by the subscriber it could be considered as sexual harassment. It doesn’t matter if the subscriber didn’t mean any harm by the conversations, all that matters is the perception by the other employee.

So too many Tinder tales can cause trouble not just for employees but also the employer. To make sure employers aren’t held responsible they can follow a few steps:

  • Ensure there is a clear work policy that states what is considered inappropriate behaviour at work.
  • Carry out regular training on dignity at work for all employees, making sure to include information about their personal legal obligations.
  • If there are any minor incidents that could be considered offensive, have a quiet meeting with the employee to ensure they are aware that others may think of it as sexual harassment.

Employers can be held responsible for employees that offend others in a sexual nature. It is important to ensure that everyone in the workplace is aware of what can be considered offended by others. Encourage staff to keep their Tinder tales to themselves while in the office and leave Valentine’s Day stories at the door.

For guidance on this or related HR matters, please contact Alison.

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