PA with PTSD subjected to ‘sexist and violent behaviour’ at work was constructively unfairly dismissed, tribunal rules

Judge finds office manager was also discriminated against after facing disciplinary action for long-term sickness absence

PA with PTSD subjected to ‘sexist and violent behaviour’ at work was constructively unfairly dismissed, tribunal rules

A personal assistant and office manager left with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a violent assault on the way home from a work Christmas party was discriminated against on the grounds of sex and disability, a tribunal has ruled, after facing a barrage of “sexist and violent behaviour” in a male-dominated office environment.

She was also found to have been constructively unfairly dismissed following a period of extended sick leave caused by her condition.

Eleanor (Elle) Stevenson – a former contestant on the BBC’s The Apprentice – worked as a personal assistant and office manager at environmental services firm Edenbeck from June 2016 until her resignation in June 2019. 

Sitting virtually, the Watford Tribunal heard there were marked differences in the ways male and female members of staff were treated at the company. Stevenson was not offered the same performance reviews or training opportunities as her male colleagues or any chances for personal progression.

She was also subjected to “sexist and violent behaviour” by male members of staff, including being sent “rude, offensive and sexually explicit messages”, having her car keys taken and hidden from her, being referred to as “Elle at fat club” and being made to clean up dog faeces after finance director Stuart Mayall’s son David brought his puppy into the office.

On other occasions, a Post-it Note with a highly offensive slur was left on her monitor, and David Mayall threw a hard dog ball at Stevenson’s head so hard it resulted in her crying. 

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Judge Bedeau said it was “clear that the male members of staff were treated more favourably when compared with the female members of staff” and that “what happened to the claimant was much more than banter. This was the respondent allowing its male employees to take advantage of the few female employees, in particular the claimant.”

On 21 February 2017, three female members of staff, including Stevenson, lodged a grievance with the firm outlining a number of complaints about the treatment of male staff compared to female employees, including their not being invited on a £7,000 trip to Las Vegas with Stuart Mayall and the male employees because of Mayall’s fears there would be “hanky panky” between the men and women.

The women also complained of the fact that they were expected to answer the company phone and of the language used in the office, describing the environment as “Dickensian”.

Although Mayall responded promising to address the complaints, and offering Stevenson and her female colleagues a £3,000 spa break, neither subsequently transpired.

The following year, on 16 December 2018, Stevenson was assaulted by two strangers while walking home from the company Christmas party, sustaining cuts and bruising to her face and a hairline fracture to her left cheek. She was subsequently signed off work by her doctor.

After exchanging text messages with Mayall about her injuries and absence later in December and in January 2019, Stevenson returned to work on 22 March 2019 but only worked for half a day before going back on sick leave.

On 26 March, Stevenson was diagnosed with PTSD following the assault, reporting that she was experiencing flashbacks and nightmares, and that she felt scared of strangers and open spaces and had all but curtailed her social activities. 

After subsequently texting Mayall informing him that she would not be in a position to return to work, she received an email from him addressed to “Faisal, Peninsula” and dated 23 March 2019 with the subject line “forthcoming redundancy”, which outlined Mayall’s plans to initiate Stevenson’s redundancy, saying that he had “no choice”.

The tribunal heard that Stevenson had received no prior communication about the possibility of her being made redundant, and that it came as a “shock”.

On 2 April, the company requested a meeting with Stevenson, but she was not well enough to attend.

At the end of the following month, Mayall wrote to Stevenson inviting her to a disciplinary hearing to deal with unauthorised absence, despite the fact that Stevenson “genuinely believed” that her fit note, which was dated 4 April and had no end date, covered her absence beyond May.

This, Bedeau noted, was ultimately “the last straw in a series of discriminatory acts perpetrated by her male colleagues on her” and she resigned on 4 June 2019. In her letter she stated that the company had sent her “bullying emails” instead of “offering me support as is your duty as an employer”.

The tribunal found that Stevenson was directly discriminated against because of her sex and disability, and her claim of constructive unfair dismissal was well founded.

Additional claims of harassment relating to sex and disability were dismissed. The case went to a remedy hearing yesterday (8 March). Edenbeck declined to comment and Stevenson has been contacted for comment. 

Gavin Howarth, employment law solicitor and managing director at Howarths, said the case highlighted how employers must be very alert to, and not in any way condone, actions or ‘office banter’ that could be seen as discriminatory. 

“Employers clearly need to be very vigilant in ensuring such a culture doesn’t develop and, where instances happen that cross the line, they are acted upon quickly and appropriately. Moreover, it reminds other businesses of the need to act carefully and compassionately with employees who are absent from work for genuine reasons,” he said. 

“While many employers sometimes understandably feel the frustration of losing a member of staff for a period of time, that clearly doesn’t excuse shortcutting a proper sickness absence management process, and applying such a process in a compassionate and open-minded way.”