Worker asked if she had Alzheimer’s by manager wins age discrimination case

Tribunal rules employer was liable for ‘humiliating, degrading and offensive’ remarks by claimant’s boss

A worker who was subjected to jokes about Alzheimer’s disease was a victim of harassment and direct discrimination, even though the comments were meant as “office banter”, a tribunal has ruled.

The tribunal found that Mrs M Crompton, who worked for Eden Private Staff from March 2018 until her dismissal in June 2019, was the victim of age discrimination after her manager made comments implying that her memory was “defective” because of her age and that she had Alzheimer’s which was linked to her poor performance.

However, the tribunal ruled that her dismissal was because of her performance and was not connected to her age.

Crompton, who was 57 at the time, started working as an administrator for Eden Private Staff, which provides an introductory service for domestic staff. In August 2018, the company had a vacancy for a search consultant, which Crompton applied for.

On 7 January 2019, Crompton switched to the role of search consultant. The tribunal heard that Crompton was “enthusiastic and communicated well on the telephone and with the team”. However, she was “making errors in welcome letters and CVs that she was sending out”.

On 6 March, H. Wallbridge and K. Burridge, who were both managers at Eden Private Staff, met with Crompton as part of her probationary period and discussed these errors. However, the tribunal noted the feedback was “positive as not to discourage” Crompton. 

Wallbridge and Burridge met with Crompton again on 18 April to discuss her progress, where they raised a number of specific issues, including asking Crompton to check letters and CVs “more carefully before sending them out and check that the most up to date CVs were used”.

Crompton told the tribunal that, at this meeting, she told Wallbridge and Burridge that Burridge’s “anger and impatience” towards her made her “uncomfortable and made it difficult for me to ask for help”. She said she enjoyed the work, but the thought of entering that office each morning made her “tearful and nervous”.

However, the tribunal heard that problems continued to persist with Crompton’s performance. By 24 May, Wallbridge and Burridge had concluded that Crompton was “taking too long to learn the basics and had to be dismissed”. They handed Crompton a letter of dismissal the same day, giving her a notice period ending on 21 June. The reason given was “inadequate performance during extended probation period”. 

On 3 June, Crompton was signed off work due to stress and did not return. 

On 14 June, Wallbridge received a grievance letter from Crompton in which she contested that performance issues were the reason behind the decision to dismiss. Later in the letter, Crompton said: “I feel you have treated me unfairly in connection with age discrimination.”

Eden Private Staff then asked an external HR consultant to investigate and report on the grievance. The consultant had a telephone conversation with Crompton on 19 June, where it came to light that Burridge had suggested on several occasions that Crompton had Alzheimer’s disease.

During the conversation, Crompton told the consultant she thought age “might have been a factor” in the decision to dismiss her, and that Burridge would make comments such as: “Is it Alzheimer’s again?” when Crompton had forgotten something. She could not provide dates or times, but said this was something that happened around once a week. 

The next day (20 June), the consultant spoke with Burridge on the phone and asked if she had made any comments about Alzheimer’s. Burridge explained there was “a bit of a laugh and joke” among colleagues and that another colleague was referred to as “dementia Debbie”, adding that “everyone calls her this”. 

In her witness statement before the tribunal, Burridge gave further detail about these comments, and recalled saying to Crompton on one occasion: “That will be the Alzheimer’s”. She admitted to the tribunal that her comment might have caused offence, that she was sorry, had received training and had moved on.

The HR consultant submitted an investigation report dated 8 August 2019. On 13 August, a letter was sent to Crompton upholding one of her grievances relating to the extension of her probation period. But otherwise, the grievances were dismissed. 

Crompton brought claims of harassment and discrimination because of her age to the employment tribunal. 

The tribunal found in favour for part of Crompton’s claim of direct discrimination. The tribunal found the Alzheimer’s remarks were an act of direct discrimination because they would not have been made to a search consultant materially younger than Crompton.

Judge Matthews doubted that Burridge’s purpose was to violate Crompton’s dignity as Burridge “almost certainly saw her remarks as no more than office banter”. However, this did not detract from the fact that the comments had this effect on Crompton.

Matthews added that the fact that Crompton had referred to having a “senior moment” in a communication with a client also did not “detract from the fact that it was reasonable for Mrs Crompton to find the remarks intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive.”

However, the tribunal found that the extension of her probation period was not because of her age and therefore not detrimental. It also found that her dismissal was based on her performance and age was not a factor.  

The tribunal ordered Eden Private Staff to pay Crompton £900 as compensation in respect of the harassment and direct discrimination together with interest of £100.41, noting that the evidence suggested “any injury having been slight” and that no complaints were lodged at the time the remarks about Alzheimer’s were made.

The judge added that until speaking to the HR consultant, Crompton’s focus had always been on the unfairness of her dismissal and that “the shift of emphasis towards age discrimination… appears to be opportunistic”.

Paul Holcroft, managing director of Croner, said this case was an example of how banter is never an excuse for discriminatory comments. Tribunals were unlikely to uphold such a defence for this behaviour, he said.

“It is therefore crucial that all employees, and managers, are aware of what constitutes acceptable conversation at work,” Holcroft said. “If allegations are made against any member of staff, they should be fully investigated, and disciplinary action taken if necessary.”

He added that victims should be fully supported by management and, crucially, feel that their complaints have been listened and responded to. Holcroft explained failure to do so could open the company up to costly discrimination claims.

In a statement to People Management, Eden Private Staff said: “Our focus on internal training, rules and procedures has been sharpened to ensure nothing similar to this will happen in the future.  We regret that a member of our staff made an unfortunately phrased remark about forgetfulness intending it to be light-hearted and with no intent to offend.

“We accept the employment judge’s decision to award the lowest injury to feelings compensation possible for this comment, whereas the claimant’s main claim – that she was dismissed because of her age – failed entirely.”

Crompton could not be contacted for comment.