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Office Gossip - Is She/Isn't She?

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The Employment Appeal Tribunal has recently criticised a tribunal which decided that gossip about an employee’s suspected pregnancy was not discrimination and harassment on grounds of sex.

Two people gossipingIn the case of Nixon v Ross Coates Solicitors, Ms Nixon brought a claim for constructive dismissal, sex and pregnancy discrimination and harassment after gossip arose in the office about her pregnancy. This was triggered by events at a Christmas party at which Ms Nixon was seen kissing another employee and then going to a hotel room with him. Some weeks later, she discovered she was pregnant and informed the managing partner of this. (It was not suggested that the managing partner was the father).

Apparently within an hour of this conversation, the HR manager knew of the pregnancy and began speculating with other employees about who the child’s father might be. Ms Nixon raised a formal grievance about this and asked to work at a different office to the HR manager but her request was refused and the firm refused to pay her for any time she remained away from work as a result of the dispute.

The tribunal initially found that she had been constructively dismissed but rejected her claim of discrimination and harassment. It also reduced her award of compensation by 90% to reflect what was regarded as her culpable conduct both pre and post dismissal.

On appeal, it was found that the gossip did amount to sex discrimination as it was pregnancy related. It was also unwanted conduct and met the definition of sexual harassment under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. To rub salt in the employer’s wounds , the EAT also said that the reduction was wrong.

This case is a timely reminder as Christmas approaches and especially in light of the coming into force of the Equality Act (see separate article) that it is relatively easy for pregnant employees to invoke the protection of discrimination law. The treatment (in this case, gossip which she found distressing) need only be related to the pregnancy.

For further information please contact Paul Grindley, a Partner in our Employment team.

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