Terraneo v Whitbread Group Plc – failure to carry out proper investigation constituted age discrimination

In the case of Terraneo v Whitbread Group plc ET/3401249/15 the Employment Tribunal held that an employee had been unfairly dismissed and discriminated against because of her age by, among other things, her employer’s failure to carry out an investigation into her grievance.

Ms Terraneo commenced employment with Whitbread Group plc (“Whitbread”) in August 1996. Her job title was “breakfast supervisor”. Unlike managers or team leaders, Ms Terraneo was not required to wear an apron.

From 2011 onwards Ms Terraneo received a number of warnings for various acts of alleged misconduct, including smoking in front of the restaurant and breaching health and safety rules. She was given a written warning. She also received warnings for her performance levels, a failure to carry out reasonable management instructions, and rude behaviour towards guests, employees or suppliers.

At the end of 2014 Ms Terraneo was twice caught smoking in prohibited areas. She was summoned to a disciplinary hearing on 8 January 2015 and summarily dismissed for gross misconduct. Ms Terraneo appealed this decision and was successful, with the sanction reduced to a final written warning. Ms Terraneo was sent a letter on 11 February 2015 confirming this.

A “return to work” meeting was held on 23 February 2015 at which Ms Terraneo lodged claims for bullying, vexatious allegations made against her, and age discrimination in relation to being unsupported at work and bullied because of her age.

On 4 March 2015 Ms Terraneo returned to work. Upon her return to work Ms Terraneo found that she was now required to wear an apron, that her hours of work had been reduced from 42 hours per week to 28.5 hours per week, and that her shift had been altered to start an hour later, although no-one had told her this. Ms Terraneo refused to wear the apron because it was dirty and that she had never been required to wear one peviously.

At the end of the shift on 4 March 2015 Ms Terraneo was called to a meeting with her line manager, Ms Bongiovani. Mr Silvera was also in attendance at this meeting. In this meeting Ms Terraneo was given a letter suspending her pending an investigation. There was apparently a heated altercation at this meeting and Ms Terraneo was told by Mr Silvera that “there is no room for you in this establishment, get out, get out”.

On 5 March 2015 Ms Terraneo resigned from her employment with immediate effect, with the following being stated as reason: underhand and vexatious disciplinary treatment; what had occurred on 4 March 2015; being demoted; and a general lost of trust and confidence in management. She also asserted that these reasons constituted age discrimination.

On 6 March 2015 Ms Kinsman was appointed to handle Ms Terraneo’s complaint dated 23 February 2015. This investigation was not completed properly and there was no investigation into any of the allegations of discrimination or bullying. Mr Kinsman’s decision was to reject Ms Terraneo’s complaint and she appealed. However, no appeal process was ever commenced by Whitbread.

Ms Terraneo brought claims in the Employment Tribunal for constructive dismissal, wrongful dismissal, direct age discrimination, harassment, and victimisation.

The Employment Tribunal upheld part of Ms Terraneo’s claim for age discrimination, finding that there was evidence of a culture of age discrimination at Whitbread and that there was no explanation for the failure to undertake a proper investigation into Ms Terraneo’s grievance. The Tribunal also found that the events of 4 March 2015 were engineered to force Ms Terraneo out of her job because of her age and found that the events of that day therefore constituted harassment on the grounds of age. The Employment Tribunal rejected, however, Ms Terraneo’s claims that she was disciplined for smoking because of her age, holding that Whitbread’s management applied a uniform policy on this issue. It also rejected Ms Terraneo’s claim of victimisation, finding that although she had made a protected disclosure (her written grievance handed in on 23 February 2015) Ms Terraneo could not point to any facts to show that she had been subjected to any detriment because of her complaint.

Chris Hadrill, a specialist employment solicitor at Redmans, commented on the case: “It is important for businesses to properly and fairly investigate complaints made by employees and this is particularly the case where the employee is making a complaint of discrimination – a failure to investigate such allegations or to produce a reasonable and fair outcome may feed into further allegations of discrimination.”