Bar manager choked by colleague at Christmas party wins tribunal

Employee was constructively unfairly dismissed after bosses allegedly joked about incident, court rules 

A bar manager who was left with anxiety, PTSD and partial facial paralysis after she was choked by a colleague at a staff Christmas party was constructively unfairly dismissed, Cardiff magistrates court has found. 

Following a November hearing, Judge Frazer concluded 24-year-old Molly Phillips’ resignation amounted to an unfair dismissal after bosses at the city’s Cameo Club failed to properly investigate her complaint. 

Phillips reportedly told the tribunal how one of the business’s co-directors, Jason Pearce, had been heard joking about the incident, in which the club’s chef, Mr Webb, had allegedly gripped Phillips’ neck and left her unconscious. 

The incident reportedly took place on New Year’s Day 2017 on the club premises. CCTV footage showed Webb put his arm around the bar manager’s neck. After a few seconds, she tried to push him off before going limp and falling to the ground. It was then that other members of staff realised something was wrong and rushed to Phillips’ aid. 

Phillips told the tribunal that when she woke up the next day she had no recollection of the incident and believed she had suffered a stroke. She had slight facial palsy which was caused, doctors said, by “lack of oxygen or nerve damage”. It was only after she returned to work to check CCTV footage from the night that she realised the incident had occurred. 

The court found the directors’ response to the CCTV evidence was unsatisfactory. The tribunal heard that while Pearce had accepted the footage showed an assault, Huw Davies, the company’s co-director, denied it showed the bar manager being strangled. 

Webb was initially arrested but was released under investigation. He still works at the bar. 

Phillips initially returned to work and did not wish to take further action. However, she grew increasingly uncomfortable and distrustful around Webb. She told her employers she had begun lose faith in their ability to keep her safe in her workplace and felt she had no other option but to quit after they failed to take her complaint seriously. 

The court ruled: “Rightly or wrongly, [Phillips] formed the view from these incidents that [Webb] had the capacity to be violent towards women. This made her believe that she had been the victim of insidious violence at the hands of Mr Webb.

“Around this time, she also learnt that her facial paralysis was more permanent than initially anticipated. I find that this culminated in her feeling vulnerable around Mr Webb in the workplace. In my finding, there was an inextricable link between the incident at the Christmas party and the workplace, even though it had happened off duty. It was a works Christmas party held on site."

In her written decision, Judge Alison Frazer added: “I find that from April [2017] onwards, Mr Davies acted in a way which was dismissive of the claimant's feelings about the incident. He told her to 'get over it'.”

Phillips, who has suffered anxiety and PTSD since the event as well as partial facial paralysis, told reporters: “I'd worked there for two and half years and done everything for that place and I realised I meant nothing to them and was completely disposable. It just feels like a weight lifted. I don’t want to think about it any more."

Cameo Club has not yet responded to a request for comment from People Management. Phillips is now expected to negotiate with her former employer regarding compensation. 

Associate director of Croner, Paul Holcroft, said the case illustrated how employees who feel their employer has “irretrievably broken the trust and confidence” are able to leave their employment and treat themselves as having been dismissed.

He warned: “Employers who do not take complaints from their staff seriously, particularly one as significant as this, will run the risk of a finding that they are in breach of this term, meaning the employee is entitled to leave their employment in reaction to it. Trust and confidence can manifest itself in various ways in an employment relationship, and ensuring the health and safety of employees should be high on the list of priorities.”

Shah Qureshi, employment partner at Irwin Mitchell, added: “The adage ‘prevention is better than cure’ applies to these situations and employers should ensure they have a policy on Christmas parties or work-related social events highlighting what is acceptable behaviour for employees.”