Sexually harassed female employee awarded over £26,000 in compensation by Employment Tribunal (Steele v Uniquely Chic Furniture (Cheshire) Limited and Michael Bennett)

In the case of Steele v Uniquely Chic Furniture (Cheshire) Limited and Michael Bennett 2401533/2017  the Employment Tribunal held that Ms Steele had been sexually harassed by her former employer and that she had suffered a serious psychological injury as a result.

The facts in Steele v Uniquely Chic Furniture (Cheshire) Limited and Michael Bennett

Ms Steele commenced employment with Uniquely Chic Furniture (Cheshire) Limited (“UCF”), a small furniture restoration and retail business, on 23 September 2015 as a furniture painter working on a part-time basis 2 days per week. Susan Scully was a director of UCF as was her husband, Michael Bennett.

On 10 December 2016 Ms Scully went on holiday with Mr Bennett to Mexico. While she was away she left a colleague, Hazel Riley, in charge of the business. Ms Riley raised with Ms Scully on her return from holiday a few issues that she had had with Ms Steele, allegations that Ms Steele denied.

On 22 December 2016 Mr Bennett called Ms Steele on her mobile telephone at 21:14. In this telephone conversation they discussed the reprimand that Ms Steele had received from Ms Scully and Mr Bennett told her not to worry about it. Mr Bennett told her he would call her back.

At 22:12 that night he called her back. After initially talking about work he then changed the conversation and told Ms Steele that he wanted to “fuck” her and “make love” to her. Ms Steele was hocked and tried to make light of what he had said. Mr Bennett then told her that he had an erection and that he had been thinking of Ms Steele ever since he had first seen her. He said she was beautiful. This call lasted for 48 minutes and ended at 23:00.

At 23:12 Mr Bennett then called Ms Steele again. Ms Steele took the call, hoping that he was calling to apologise to her for the previous call. Mr Bennett continued, however, to discuss sex and told her again that he wanted to “fuck” her. He told her she would not lose her job but that, even if she did, he would still pay her. Ms Steele took offence at this as she saw it as a suggestion that she would be like a prostitute. He ended the conversation by telling her that she should keep their conversation “secret” and asked whether she was recording the call. This call ended at midnight and at 00:14 Ms Steele texted her sister: “My boss has been on the phone for last 2 hours saying he’s in love with me and wants to fuck me. and after fucking me he wants to make love. Omg Wft. All I want is job 0”. The next morning Ms Steele made some handwritten notes of the call.

Ms Steele was supposed to be working on 23 December 2016 and was to be picked up by Ms Scully at 9am. She was driven to work by Ms Scully. She attended work that day but on 4 January 2017 could not face going in to work, so did not attend work. She also reported the incident to the police and on 5 January 2017 was signed off work sick by her GP. Her GP’s note records stated that Ms Steele had informed her that she had been sexually harassed by her boss.

Ms Steele did not return to work and resigned on 16 January 2017, stating that the reason for her resignation were the telephone calls from Mr Bennett on 22 December 2016.

Ms Steele made claims in the Employment Tribunal for direct sex discrimination and sexual harassment.

The decision of the Employment Tribunal in Steele v Uniquely Chic Furniture (Cheshire) Limited and Michael Bennett

The Employment Tribunal upheld Ms Steele’s claims for direct sex discrimination and sexual harassment, given that it found that Ms Steele’s account of what occurred in the telephone conversations on 22 December 2016 was to be preferred.

The Employment Tribunal awarded Ms Steele £20,500 in respect of injury to feelings and £6,000 by way of damages for personal injury. The Tribunal also awarded Ms Steele £2,201.31 in interest on these sums.

Our solicitors’ view on Steele v Uniquely Chic Furniture (Cheshire) Limited and Michael Bennett

Chris Hadrill, a specialist employment solicitor at Redmans, commented on the case: “In claims for discrimination and harassment a crucial element in succeeding with any claim will be the contemporary recording (preferably in writing) of the conduct that occurred, in order to demonstrate what occurred and when. A failure to do so can often be fatal to a Claimant’s chances of succeeding with a claim.”

The judgment of the Employment Tribunal on liability can be found here and the judgment on remedy can be found here.