Employment Tribunal awards female employee £25,000 after finding that she was sexually harassed (Shotton v Mark Harris Upholstery Limited & anor (ET/1401354/2018)

In the case of Ms Shotton v Mark Harris Upholstery Limited & anor (ET/1401354/2018), the Employment Tribunal upheld the Claimant’s claim that she was harassed over an extended period by the Managing Director of the company she was employed by, awarding her £25,000 in compensation.

The facts in Ms Shotton v Mark Harris Upholstery Limited & anor

Mark Harris Upholstery Limited (the ‘Respondent’) was a small business with ten employees selling foam and re-upholstery supplies operating in Somerset. Mr Harris (the ‘Second Respondent’) was Managing Director of the Respondent.  Ms Shotton (the ‘Claimant’) was employed by the Respondent from 7 May 2013 to 16 April 2018 when she resigned.

In the Claimant’s evidence she said that at first the Second Respondent was charming and funny and they became friends.  However, she said that he went on to gradually introduce sexually abusive acts, including spontaneously kissing her, stroking and sniffing her hair, putting his hands inside her clothes, sexually hugging her, asking for sex and sexual favours.

Prior to a meeting on 18 November 2016 when the Claimant protested about the harassment, it was unclear the extent to which the Claimant found the treatment unwelcome.  However, at that meeting, which the Claimant recorded, she referred to numerous incidents of the Second Respondent demanding physical contact including grabbing her waist, requesting she accompany him to a hotel room, requesting that he be allowed to ‘squeeze her tits’.  There was an implicit admission from the Second Respondent that these events had taken place and the Claimant protested against the demands for contact.  The transcript also revealed that the Claimant and the Second Respondent agreed that matters would be put in the past and that there would be changes in the Second Respondent’s behaviour towards the Claimant.

However, the Second Respondent was unable to overcome his infatuation with the Claimant and went on to take out his frustrations on the Claimant in the workplace.  When the Claimant rejected his advances he would sulk, get angry and aggressive and ignore her.

There was a further meeting between the Claimant and the Second Respondent on the 7 November 2017 where the Claimant again complained about the Second Respondent’s intimidatory behaviour.  Incidents complained of included a slap on the hand, being hit around the back of head with a piece of foam and being referred to as a ‘skinny bitch’.  Again, the Claimant recorded the meeting and the Second Respondent seemed to take the view that the Claimant should put up with some physical contact as part of their working relationship.

On the 10 January 2018 the Clamant had a performance appraisal.  The Claimant was concerned about her job security.  The Second Respondent made mention of the Claimant using the Respondent’s internet for personal use but assured the Claimant that this was not a problem.  There was also a discussion about the Claimant being ‘off her game’ and relations between the Claimant and the Second Respondent.  The Second Respondent said the Claimant was at times ‘difficult’ and ‘prickly’.  He went on to say ‘I wanna be able to touch you on the arm without thinking “fuck me, I’m Harvey Weinsteining in the poor woman”’. The Second Respondent asked if he and the Claimant could go back to where they were and when the Claimant agreed the Second Respondent started to cuddle her.  The Second Respondent went on to ask, ‘Can I squeeze your bum, no, squeeze your tit, can I Harvey Weinstein your arse?’.  The Claimant gave evidence that she tolerated the Second Respondent’s behaviour because she was a single mum and fearful for her job, but had felt dirty, violated and ashamed after the incident.

On 17 January 2017 the Claimant prepared a letter headed ‘informal concerns’ where she complained about the Second Respondent’s behaviour.  The Claimant was then signed off sick for the period from 25 January 2018 and her resignation on 16 April 2018.

On 10 February 2018 the Claimant was invited to an investigation meeting into her behaviour. One of the allegations concerned her internet usage.  The Claimant’s grievance was heard on 23 February 2018 and was not upheld.  The Claimant appealed against the grievance finding in a letter dated 16 March 2018 and this was also not upheld.

The investigation into the Claimant’s behaviour continued with two remaining charges, unauthorised internet usage and undermining the Second Respondent and these were classified as charges of gross misconduct.  The Claimant did not attend the disciplinary hearing and went on to resign, giving her reasons as the way her grievance had been dealt with, the treatment she had received from the Seven Respondent and the trumped up disciplinary charges.

The Claimant went on to bring claims for harassment, direct sex discrimination, constructive unfair dismissal and wrongful dismissal in the Employment Tribunal.

The decision of the Employment Tribunal (ET)

The Claimant’s complaint of harassment was upheld.  The Employment Tribunal held that there was conduct of a sexual nature and considered carefully whether or not that conduct was unwanted.  They held that at the meeting on the 18 November 2016 the Claimant had attempted to warn off the Second Respondent and thereafter his behaviour was unwanted.  They also held that whilst the purpose of the sexual conduct was not to violate the Claimant’s dignity or create an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment, it did have that effect.  The Respondent were ordered to pay her £25,000 as compensation.  Her claims for constructive unfair dismissal and wrongful dismissal were also upheld.

Our solicitors’ views on the case of Ms Shotton v Mark Harris upholstery Limited (1) Leonard Mark Harris (2)

Sacha Barrett, a Senior Associate in the employment department at Redmans, made the following comment on the case: “this case demonstrates that conduct of a sexual nature should always be avoided in the workplace, even where it appears on the surface to be between two consenting adults.  Employer’s should have robust written policies in place setting out their position and making it clear to employee’s that such behaviour will not be tolerated.”

The decision of the Employment Tribunal in Ms Shotton v (1) Mark Harris upholstery Limited & (2) Leonard Mark Harris (ET/1401354/2018) can be found here.