Sales executive victim of sexual harassment after boss made advances and called her a 'good girl', tribunal rules

Judge finds HR’s approach to her disclosure was ‘primitive’ and her manager ‘took revenge’ by souring relationships with other colleagues

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A sales executive was sexually harassed and constructively, unfairly dismissed when her line manager made sexual advances towards her on a work trip and constantly referred to her as a “good girl”, a tribunal has found. 

The Watford tribunal heard that Ms Frances Fricker was working in a “laddish and probably toxic” culture and was subjected to sexual advances by her boss who, when rebuffed, “took revenge” and tried to cover his tracks with a performance review. 

Judge G Tobin concluded that HR’s response to her complaints and its approach to her allegations of harassment were “primitive” and found that her claims of sexual harassment were well founded, and that she was treated less favourably because of her rejection of the harassment. Further claims of victimisation and discrimination were not upheld.

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Fricker started her employment as a sales executive with Gartner UK on 1 September 2017. The tribunal heard that in November and December 2017 her line manager, Mr Ajroldi, started to repeatedly ask Fricker via WhatsApp to take a “better picture” for her LinkedIn profile and the company intranet.

During one of these exchanges, Ajroldi told Fricker about the image she provided: “It’s a beautiful picture”, and added: “You are beautiful! For once trust your manager”.

In another incident, on 5 February 2018, after Fricker agreed over text to carry out a task, Ajroldi responded with the comment: “Good girl!”. Frickers replied saying: “I’m an independent woman for goodness’ sake!! ;)”.

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The judge noted that Ajroldi “played dumb” by asking if the phrase “good girl” was not appropriate, to which Fricker responded: “hahah, just a little condescending”. The tribunal said Ajroldi was “not content with being told and wanted to retain the upper hand”, so he replied: “sorry…I didn’t want to offend an independent woman”.

He continued to refer to Fricker as a “good girl” over WhatsApp throughout February, alongside telling her he loved her with a kissing face emoji. 

In August, the tribunal heard that Fricker had an overnight stay for work and Ajroldi “insisted” on coming with her. The tribunal accepted her evidence that on 7 August he tried to make sexual advances towards her in her hotel room, which included attempts to kiss and touch her.

Ajroldi apologised for his behaviour by texts once he was rebuffed later that night, and Fricker said he was apologetic the following morning. He promised it would never happen again and Fricker claims she said in very clear terms that his behaviour needed to stop. The tribunal accepted that Fricker’s actions amounted to a “clear rejection” and removed any possible doubt for Ajroldi. 

Following this, on 10 September 2018 after Fricker mentioned she had gone on a date via a dating website, Ajroldi joked that he would join the same website and said it would be “funny” if he organised a date with Fricker disguised as someone else. Fricker told the tribunal she deleted the app as she felt “shocked, disgusted and threatened”, which the tribunal said was “entirely understandable” reaction.

Following this, the tribunal noted Ajroldi’s relationship with Friker changed to what she described as “defensive and very aggressive”. She claimed he also “soured” relationships between her and other senior colleagues.

On 24 September, Ajroldi told Fricker he was implementing a performance improvement plan by issuing a call to action (CTA) letter. Fricker said this came “completely out of the blue” and when she questioned this, Ajroldi’s attitude towards her “deteriorated further”. She was taken off CTA on 29 October as there had been a “significant improvement” in her performance.

Fricker raised a grievance on 30 October, but the tribunal found it was not “promptly investigated”. Fricker was not kept in the loop, and HR denied Fricker’s request to have a colleague present at the hearing, claiming “concerned about confidentiality”. The tribunal said this was a “wrong choice made by a senior HR practitioner” and was intended to “deliberately put [Fricker] at a disadvantage”. 

Fricker’s complaints were upheld, but the hearing concluded that Fricker reciprocated Ajroldi’s advances and that “neither” of their behaviour was acceptable. Formal disciplinary proceedings were started against Ajroldi as he was a line manager and had “greater responsibility”.

Fricker appealed the outcome on 23 November, as it did not acknowledge the harassment after February, however the subsequent investigation did not find in her favour.

The process had an ill effect on Fricker’s health and she went off on certified sick leave and did not return until 7 May 2019, during which time Ajroldi entered a settlement agreement with Gartner UK and left amicably. 

The tribunal heard that Fricker was then harassed by other male colleagues and made a string of additional complaints. She resigned on 15 October 2019 with immediate effect, citing sexual harassment, continued bullying and victimisation and forcing her to “work in a hostile environment” alongside other reasons. 

The tribunal found Fricker’s claims of sexual harassment were well founded, noting that Gartner’s HR business partner made a “deliberate attempt to mislead the tribunal so that the respondent can evade liability for Mr Ajroldi’s sexual harassment of the claimant”. “This is an attempt to cover up Mr Ajroldi’s sexually harassing behaviour,” it said.

The tribunal also noted that while various witnesses had described Ajroldi’s behaviour as “banter”, it said this was not the case. “The harassment started slightly at first with comments, particularly about her appearance and her standing (i.e. good girl) which then escalated into inappropriate advances,” the judge said.

“Language evolves over time. Words and phrases that might once have seemed harmless are now regarded as racial, homophobic and sexist slurs,” the judge added.

Alan Lewis, partner at Constantine Law, said Gartner UK and its witnesses faced “significant criticism” from the tribunal, including findings that the witnesses were deliberately trying to mislead the tribunal. “This is quite an uncommon express finding in practice, nevertheless, given the circumstances of this particular case, that criticism is perhaps not surprising,” he said.

Lewis added that employers needed to be “alive to the fact” that language changes over time. “What was once seen as not being something to complain about might be seen today in a different light. It was the harasser’s ignoring of the repeated objection of the claimant to the use of this term that led to the harassment finding.”

Gartner said it was “extremely disappointed” and is currently determining next steps, including the possibility of an appeal. A spokesperson said: “At Gartner, we are committed to creating an inclusive culture where every associate feels safe, respected and empowered to do their best work.”

Fricker could not be reached for comment. 

Fricker’s compensation will be determined at a later date.