NHS worker asked if her pregnancy was planned was discriminated against, tribunal rules

Manager frustrated the pregnancy would make it difficult to terminate administrator's employment made 'objectively inappropriate' comments 

A pregnant NHS administrator was discriminated against after her manager asked if her pregnancy was planned and if the cost of her maternity leave would come out of the team’s budget.

A London tribunal ruled the comments made to Haddi Camara, a temporary employee assigned to work for the East London NHS Foundation Trust (ELFT), were “objectively inappropriate and upsetting” and “manifestly made because of the claimant’s pregnancy”.

The tribunal said the comments were likely made by her line manager in frustration, as she had been considering terminating Camara’s employment for poor performance and saw the pregnancy as a barrier to doing this.

However, the tribunal ruled Camara had been fairly dismissed because the reason for her dismissal was budgetary pressures. Complaints of harassment and discrimination on the grounds of race and religion were also withdrawn. Other claims of discrimination and harassment linked to Camara’s pregnancy were also dismissed.

Camara worked as an administrator for the ELFT on the continuing healthcare (CHC) team from 24 January to 16 August 2018.

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After an initial two weeks in the role, a permanent administrator for the CHC team became “increasingly disappointed” with Camara’s performance and raised concerns that she was “often” on her personal mobile phone, the tribunal heard.

These concerns were eventually passed on to Camara’s line manager, Paulette Douglas-Obobi, who arranged a meeting with Camara to discuss the issues.

The meeting was scheduled for 26 April, but Camara had to cancel because she had a conflicting antenatal appointment. It was then that Camara announced over the phone to Douglas-Obobi that she was pregnant.

The tribunal heard Douglas-Obobi initially congratulated Camara. However, when Douglas-Obobi was next at work on 27 April, she invited Camara into her office and said words to the effect of ‘did you plan this?’ and ‘will this have to come out of my budget?’ in reference to the cost of maternity leave and other maternity benefits.

The tribunal found these comments were made because Douglas-Obobi was “frustrated” as she had been considering terminating Camara, and considered her pregnancy a possible barrier.

In June, another CHC employee raised fresh concerns about Camara’s performance, prompting Douglas-Obobi to speak to Helen Grimes, head of administration.

An HR officer for the ELFT responded on 3 July asking if there were any notes to show performance concerns before Camara’s notification of pregnancy or if the issues were recent. In a separate email, Grimes said the overarching issue was there was no longer sufficient budget to sustain the temporary admin post. 

On 4 July HR advised there was a risk in terminating Camara’s employment, but added: “You need to be clear the only reason you are terminating her bank assignment is because her post/duties are to be covered by the rest of the team for cost-saving measures and ensure she is given the appropriate notice.”

On 18 July Douglas-Obobi gave Camara four weeks’ notice of her termination, citing insufficient funds to retain her. 

Camara contacted HR on 21 July to complain that Douglas-Obobi had failed to undertake risk assessments after Camara announced her pregnancy, and about Douglas-Obobi’s comments in April. 

Camara filed a grievance about the ELFT’s treatment of her on 1 August. She asked for an extension to her notice period, but this was refused and her employment terminated on 16 August.

On 31 January 2019 Camara received a letter saying her grievance had not been upheld and her termination was down to the temporary administration post no longer being needed.

Camara brought complaints of discrimination and harassment on the grounds of pregnancy, race and religion, as well as a claim of unfair dismissal, to the East London Hearing Centre on 4 October 2018.

Judge Sean O’Brien said Douglas-Obobi’s comments in April 2018, in direct reaction to Camara’s announcement of her pregnancy, were discriminatory.

However, the tribunal ruled Camara had been fairly dismissed because the reasons for terminating her assignment were budgetary pressures and the team no longer needing a temporary administrator.

A remedy hearing was scheduled for a different day.

Carl Atkinson, partner at Gunnercooke, said it was important for employers to have an open dialogue with pregnant staff members, but these conversations must be approached in a professional and positive way.

"There is significant value in training managers to be more reflective and less instinctively judgemental in discussions with employees," Atkinson said. "I think it's not just a pregnancy issue, but it reads through many different situations in the workplace."

The ELFT has been contacted for comment. Camara could not be reached for comment.