Office assistant called ‘fatty’ by boss who wanted ‘slim, smart’ workers was victim of harassment, tribunal finds

Judge rules director’s comments imply women were employed for reasons unrelated to an ability to do the job, and created a hostile, degrading environment

Credit: Illustration Chris Barker

An office assistant who was called “fatty” and told her boss wanted “slim, smart girls” in the office was a victim of harassment and victimisation, a tribunal has ruled.

The Glasgow tribunal found that Ms Zaman, who was employed at textile company Knightsbridge Furnishing in East Kilbride, was subjected to “unwanted conduct” of a sexual nature and a “degrading working environment” by her employer, Mr Shahzad Younas, for almost the entirety of her employment.

The tribunal ruled that Younas created the environment when he suggested she “cook and clean” for him, which it said was an “outdated image of a subservient female”, and subjected her to an “intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive environment”.

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Zaman’s claims of harassment and victimisation succeded, but a further claim that her dismissal was an act of direct discrimination was not upheld.

Zaman was employed as an office assistant from 1 July 2018, and was quickly promoted to office manager before her dismissal on 16 April 2020 by her boss, Younas, who intermittently held the office of the company’s  director.

The tribunal heard that Younas, who has since left the organisation, spent the “majority” of his time in Pakistan and supervised Zaman and the rest of the workforce remotely on a daily basis using Skype, telephone calls, WhatsApp messaging and CCTV cameras installed at the premises. 

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On 2 November 2018, Younas sent Zaman a WhatsApp message saying: “Motee u need to start gym,” and she told the tribunal that ‘motee’ meant ‘fatty’ in Punjabi. In the same exchange, Younas also propositioned Zaman that they go to the gym together, adding: “I want u to be slim and smart,” and “boss also wants slim smart girls in [the] office”.

On 3 November 2018, Younas sent her a WhatsApp message suggesting that Zaman’s second job as a DJ was the “work of prostitutes” that is “done in a brothel”. He added that “no one would marry” her, asked if he should “stop fancying” her, and said “don’t break my heart”.

In another message immediately following this exchange, Younas offered to buy Zaman a Mercedes car “so people get more jealous”. Zaman was aware he had previously purchased a car for a female colleague, which she told the tribunal was intended to make the colleague feel more “tied” to him.

On several occasions when he was in Scotland, Younas asked only female employees “where is my lunch” or “where is my dinner”, using an expression in Punjabi suggesting that he saw them as liable to be asked to do anything for him because he paid their wages.

On 2 August 2019, Younas arrived at Zaman’s home in the evening, telephoned her and tried to persuade her to go with him to the cinema, which she felt forced to agree to, but she did not want to go and did not answer her phone or the door to him. On 3 August, she messaged him to apologise and said she fell asleep on her sofa.

In September 2019, Younas instructed Zaman to unpack his personal clothes from a suitcase, including his underwear, telling her this was “woman’s work”.

The tribunal also heard that, in April 2020, Zaman got the impression that a female colleague had rejected Younas’s advances and he suggested to Zaman that since that colleague was not interested in him she must therefore be a “lesbian”. He then suggested that both Zaman and the colleague were lesbians and “should get together”.

On 16 April 2020, Younas instructed another employee to tell Zaman to carry out a reconstruction of her office. When Zaman explained that she was busy, and she would ask some of her male colleagues for help later, Younas called her an "idiot" and a "pain in the a**", before grabbing her by the arm with both hands and yelling: "I am going to f*** you," which she understood to mean he was threatening to damage or destroy her life or reputation. He then told her to leave and not return. Younas later sold the firm.

Following this incident, in the period between 16 April and 5 August 2020, Tasneem Hussain, administration assistant at Knightsbridge Furnishing, wrote to Zaman purporting to summarily dismiss her as a result of allegations including fraudulent theft of money to the sum of £17,718.29.

While Zaman heard from people in their community that Younas told a few people about the allegations and he would “let her off if she drops her claim”, the tribunal concluded that these allegations had no factual basis and were false.

Judge Russell Bradley said Zaman was subjected to an environment of regular conduct of a sexual nature or that related to her sex, which “had the purpose or effect of violating her dignity and created an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.

Judge Bradley added that the messages, which suggested that the company required female employees to have a certain physical appearance, were clearly related to Zaman’s sex as “they suggested that females were employed for reasons unrelated to an ability to do the job”.

In addition, the judge said the “messages suggesting the desire for a relationship relate to her sex, and were unwanted and were humiliating”.

Both Knightsbridge Furnishing and Younas were ordered to pay the claimant, jointly and severally, £18,984 as compensation.

Sarah Williams, head of employment at Taylors Solicitors, said that while this is a Scottish case, “it is a useful reminder for all HR managers and business owners around the UK about the need for good equality policies and employee training”.

“The facts of this case are shocking, and the case confirms that people who are employed under an illegal contract can still pursue claims for discrimination and harassment, and that individuals, or other employees, can be named and ordered to pay compensation to a claimant,” Williams added.

Amanda Trewhella, employment director at Freeths, said there can often be a misunderstanding as to what harassment on the grounds of sex means, but that ultimately Younas’s actions were clear cut. “In this case, some of Mr Younas’s actions clearly amounted to conduct of a sexual nature, such as implying that she was a prostitute because she worked as a DJ,” said Trewhella, adding that other actions, while not sexual in nature, “still amounted to harassment on the grounds of her sex, including a suggestion that Ms Zaman should cook and clean for her boss because this is ‘woman’s work’”.

Knightsbridge Furnishing has been contacted for a comment. Younas could not be reached.