LONDON | Office manager faced ‘hostile, humiliating and offensive environment’ as employer asked if she knew she was pregnant on accepting role.
A pregnant office worker whose dignity was “violated” as a result of a “hostile, humiliating and offensive” work environment has won tribunal claims for unfair dismissal and pregnancy discrimination.
The East London employment tribunal ruled that Eilise Walker was subjected to unfavourable treatment by her employer, Arco Environmental, and was made to feel “intimidated and degraded” because of the perceived inconvenience her pregnancy would cause the business.
The tribunal heard the firm’s managing director, Ron Heyfron, conceded he “probably did panic about the HR issues” he perceived the pregnancy would cause, and employment judge Bernice Elgot held the respondent was “in a situation where none of the senior managers had dealt with maternity arrangements before”.
Walker worked at Arco Environmental for just over a month, from 3 November to 13 December 2017, taking over the duties of a departing office manager.
On 6 December, after three weeks with the firm, she informed the business she was pregnant with her second child. Following that, on 11 December, Walker told the tribunal Steve Rees, the commercial and financial director, and his wife Adele Rees, who worked in purchasing, would not speak to her. “It was clear neither of them wanted to talk to me,” she said.
Walker showed Adele Rees a picture of her pregnancy scan in an attempt to engage her in conversation. Rees then asked if she had been trying to get pregnant, to which Walker said she had before she took the job but had then stopped trying. The tribunal heard that, to this Rees replied with words along the lines of: “Oh well, shit happens, it’s a new life.”
The tribunal heard this was the beginning of Walker’s perception the respondent was not pleased that she had arrived at her new job already pregnant, and that she would require replacing – at least temporarily – during her maternity period.
That afternoon, Walker was invited to a meeting with Heyfron and her line manager, Jim Grant. Heyfron confirmed to the court that he inappropriately asked her if she knew she was pregnant at the time she had taken the job and said that, on reflection, this was a mistake.
The judge found that it was reasonable for Walker to feel the reason for this question was because Heyfron expected that she “had taken the job under some kind of false pretence” when she knew she was already expecting a baby.
Grant also conceded that it could have been understood by Walker during that meeting that the company believed she had known about her pregnancy, taken the job anyway and intended to obtain maternity pay from the company rather than from her husband’s business, where she had previously worked.
Walker sent a message to Grant the same evening, which read: “Sorry to bother you at home. I went home quite upset after the chat today. I haven’t intended on creating a problem for the business. I wouldn’t take a job for maternity pay when I was already guaranteed it without travelling two hours a day. Can you pass this on to Steve and let me know where I stand please?”
Following a final meeting on the morning of 13 December, Walker submitted a resignation letter.
Elgot ruled: “The conduct of the meeting on the afternoon of 11 December 2017 and the failure of the respondent to respond in any way to Walker’s concerns amount to unfavourable treatment because of her pregnancy and harassment. There is no other explanation for the respondent’s treatment of her.
“We find that the effect of the events which took place at work over the very short period of three days, 11-13 December 2017, was to harass the claimant by violating her dignity and creating a hostile, humiliating and offensive environment for her. That harassment related to her protected characteristic of sex because, as is axiomatic, only women can be pregnant.”
At the tribunal, Walker won claims for breach of contract for failure to pay notice pay. She was also awarded for failure to supply written particulars of her employment, as her job title, job description and duties were ambiguous.
This led Elgot to rule that the yet-to-be determined award would be “the higher amount” because on her appointment Walker “received no documentation whatsoever.”
Belinda Lester, a solicitor at Lionshead Law, said the case was a clear example of an employer failing to appreciate that, not only are prospective employees not obliged to inform them that they are pregnant or trying to get pregnant during interview, but that any inconvenience to the business which may be caused by such a pregnancy is precisely why protective legislation was brought in in the first place.
“Discrimination against a pregnant woman can be as simple as making a negative comment about the impact her pregnancy will have on the business,” she said. “Employers and prospective employers need to be very careful about the types of questions they ask interviewees and should avoid asking any questions which are not relevant to a person’s skills and qualifications for the job at hand.”
Arco Environmental said: “We are waiting on our legal advisers to review the judgement in detail so we are not in a position to provide a comment at this stage.”