Pharmacy worker teased about hearing and memory loss awarded £15,000

Employee was subjected to age discrimination, tribunal finds, with complaints about colleagues’ taunts shrugged off by management as ‘just a moan and groan’ 

A pharmacy worker who was mocked by younger staff about her hearing and memory has been awarded £15,000 for age discrimination by a tribunal.

The Liverpool tribunal found Sue Walsh was subjected to age discrimination “from the outset” of her employment. It also ruled she was a victim of disability discrimination as she suffered from arthritis and was ridiculed for not hearing colleagues call her name, and that she was later dismissed in 2018 because of an absence related to her disability.

The tribunal found the mocking of both her hearing and memory “generated a climate at work that was hostile” and related to her age, as colleagues did not mock each other when they forgot things or misheard.

Walsh began working as a counter assistant at Rose Medical-owned St Chad’s chemist in Oldham, Greater Manchester in April 2017 when she was 60 years old. 

The tribunal heard that her colleagues, aged between 17 and 24, would shout at Walsh from the dispensary while she was at the counter until she heard or was made aware by a customer, by which time the calling had become “louder and more hostile”. Colleagues would shout in front of customers: “Sue, Sue Sue! You can’t hear can you?” 

Walsh was also mocked for not being able to remember things and having to ask colleagues despite using lists and notes to help her. When she asked a colleague a question, she was told: “Not again, you have already asked me this.” The tribunal heard this caused her such embarrassment that she consulted her GP for hearing loss in October 2017 and was referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist. During this time, Walsh’s six-month probationary period passed without any performance issues raised.

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In May 2018, she was diagnosed with low-level mixed hearing loss. She was given a hearing aid in July 2018, but the teasing did not stop. The tribunal found this happened throughout her employment, both before and after a hearing aid was fitted, and that the mocking was “not actually related to whether she had heard or not but was something the staff did as a matter of course”.

In February 2018, Walsh made a complaint to the pharmacy’s manager, Mr Nolan, saying she was “struggling with how [colleagues] spoke to her”. He did not refer Walsh to HR or Rose Medical’s co-director, Mr Molyneux, even though it was his general practice to refer people management issues to him.

In early May 2018, Walsh told Nolan she was unhappy and wanted to move pharmacy or be let go potentially. She had also tried to contact Molyneux but couldn’t get hold of him.

She eventually met with Molyneux on 17 May 2018. Molyneux told her to “let it go over her head” and “smile and get on with the job”. Walsh responded: “But I’m 63 not 21. I shouldn’t have to just let it go. They laugh and joke about it.” She told Molyneux that Nolan had done nothing about the situation and she did not feel supported by him.

Molyneux described the offenders – some of whom were apprentices – as “the future lifeline of the business” and assured her things would get better. However, the tribunal found he did not take statements, put training in place or contact HR. And after the meeting the relationship between Walsh and Nolan became strained. The tribunal heard Nolan would often not greet her in the mornings and began singling her out for misfiling errors that were made by all staff.

On 11 September 2018, Nolan asked Walsh to complete a task outside of her normal responsibilities called ‘dooping’ – the disposal of old prescription medicines – which Nolan felt was an “exercise of power”. Nolan said the task would take 10 minutes but it required her to sit for 45 minutes and bend forward to reach into bags, which caused her pain because of her osteoarthritis – a condition that Nolan was aware of as Walsh was also a patient at the pharmacy and had discussed her health problems and inability to lift heavy items with colleagues.

Walsh did not ask for help with the task, nor did she say it would cause her difficulty because she was “upset at being asked, embarrassed about the difficulty it would cause and didn’t realise how long it would take”. When she returned to the counter she was “feeling upset and tearful” but as she tried to serve a customer she had a dizzy spell, wobbled and fell onto her colleague.

She was assisted by a customer onto a chair but Nolan, who was also the pharmacy first aider, did not come to help despite being aware of the incident. 

Walsh was sent home by a colleague and called in sick via a text to Nolan on 13 September saying she had hurt her back doing the “doop bins”. She called in sick again on 14 September and Nolan reported this and the dooping incident to Molyneux, who said it was “the last straw” and that Walsh would have to be dismissed. Walsh returned to work as usual but was dismissed on 20 September by Molyneux.

The tribunal found Walsh’s disclosure to Nolan about the age-related teasing was not taken seriously as a formal complaint. Rather he approached this as “just a moan and groan” and “wanted to get home for his tea”, it stated. His hostility and unhelpfulness towards Walsh were examples of “escalating treatment over that period”, it found.

Paul Holcroft, associate director at Croner, said the case presented an example of how, if management failed to take steps to prevent discrimination, the company could be liable for a claim. 

“It is crucial that, when management is faced with accusations of this nature, they take steps to investigate them further and ascertain if they need to take action against the perpetrators,” said Holcroft. “Simply shrugging off complaints and then treating the employee poorly afterwards, as demonstrated in this case, can potentially cause significant issues later.” 

The tribunal ruled Walsh was subjected to disability and age discrimination and that Rose Medical’s failure to provide written particulars was well founded. She was awarded £245 for one week of lost pay, with 8 per cent interest, and £13,000 for injury to feelings for acts of age and discrimination, with 8 per cent interest, alongside two weeks of pay (£470) for failing to provide written particulars of employment. This came to a total of £15,649. 

Walsh could not be reached for comment. Rose Medical has been contacted for comment.