An office worker has been awarded £50,000 by a tribunal after she was excluded from a ‘free day off’ and her employer failed to send her job adverts while she was on maternity leave.
The Cambridge tribunal heard that Greatwell Homes Limited had failed to keep Ms R Smith informed of opportunities for career progression, even though she had been encouraged to apply for promotions before she informed them she was pregnant.
It ruled that Smith’s reputation in the firm as a “an effective and useful member of staff” had been “eroded by the knowledge that she had become pregnant and was on maternity leave”.
Despite the firm accepting it had not complied with its own maternity policy in not informing of her any job vacancies, it “sought to point the finger at the claimant” and did not “appear to accept any fault”, the tribunal ruled.
Smith began working at Greatwell Homes in March 2019 as a business improvement analyst within the business improvement team. The tribunal heard she was a valuable and ambitious member of staff, and noted she was a “credible and consistent witness”.
Within her team there were three members of staff: herself, a business improvement manager and a head of business intelligence. However, the person occupying the post of business improvement manager – the person who was meant to be Smith’s line manager – had been absent from August 2019 due to long-term ill health. She never returned to work and resigned in early 2020.
Consequently, Smith was required to take on a “significant proportion” of the responsibilities that should have been her line manager’s.
The firm’s head of property services and compliance, Loreen Herzig, viewed Smith as a valuable member of the team and encouraged her to apply for a more senior post with line management responsibilities should one become available.
In April 2020, Smith informed Herzig that she was pregnant. The tribunal found the news was not effectively communicated to human resources by Herzig, and Smith was required to confirm with HR that she was expecting a baby on two further occasions. “We find that this was symptomatic of the respondent’s attitude towards the claimant and/or to the fact she was pregnant,” it said.
Smith’s first claim arose during the same month. All staff were given a free day off by the company as a thank you for their efforts during the Covid pandemic. The day off was a Friday, however, when Smith mentioned that she did not work Fridays, the firm refused to allow her to take a different day off.
In September 2020, she went on maternity leave. Other than a few emails from HR about pension matters and some personal messages from Herzig, Smith did not hear from her employer during her maternity leave.
Then in April 2021, Smith received a text message from Herzig in which she was informed that someone had been appointed as her new manager and the firm had also hired a governance and assurance manager, which was only published internally on the company intranet. These were both roles, the tribunal ruled, that would have been opportunities for Smith to progress within the company.
The claimant was not happy about the text and what she perceived to be a lack of communication from the respondent during her maternity leave, which went against the company’s maternity policy - which stated that employees on maternity leave must be informed of job vacancies.
She commenced a grievance which was heard by Mr Wilesmith, but it was not upheld.
In August 2021, the respondent began to send job adverts to Smith. This included a re-advertisement of the governance and assurance manager’s post, as the current person occupying the role was on a 12-month contract and it would end in April 2022.
The claimant resigned by letter dated 31 August. By a letter of the same day, the respondent accepted her resignation.
The tribunal noted that neither Herzig nor Wilesmith were impressive witnesses, and ruled Smith was treated less favourably by the respondent on the grounds that she was on maternity leave.
It noted: “Neither demonstrated sufficient knowledge, skills or empathy in the way they dealt with the claimant throughout this process. It was the tribunal’s view that both were ill-equipped to deal with equality and diversity issues. It is incumbent on an employer to make sure that appropriately skilled and experienced staff deal with equality and diversity issues. The respondent had singularly failed in this regard.”
Regarding the free day off, the tribunal said the firm’s decision to not allow her to reschedule a day off was “unfavourable towards part-time workers, and therefore indirectly discriminatory towards female members of staff, as well as deeply unsympathetic in relation to the claimant herself”.
It also ruled that Smith “clearly [had] less favourable treatment” because she was on maternity leave as she was “barred from the opportunity” of participating in any recruitment process, or the chance to compete with other applicants to progress her career.
Employment judge Wood said: “In our view, it is clear that Miss Herzig’s view of [Smith] as an effective and useful member of staff had been eroded by the knowledge that she had become pregnant and was on maternity leave.
“It may have been, in part, a subconscious attitude. Nonetheless, we are clear that it was the reason, or a significant part of the reason, for the unfavourable treatment.”
It also said the firm’s decision to send Smith job ads in August 2021 for vacancies that were expected to become available in April the following year were just “window dressing” to disguise the treatment that had gone before.
Greatwell Homes was consequently ordered to pay Smith £50,000.
Rachel Philips, employment solicitor at JMW Solicitors LLP, said: “Employees have the right to not be treated less favourably during maternity leave and this case clearly demonstrates the importance for employers to comply with this requirement and the significant consequences they may face if not.”
She added: “As well as the substantial compensation payable, there is also the potentially damaging publicity surrounding cases such as these which can affect the wider business. Increasingly, employees are aware of an employer’s commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion, and complying with maternity leave obligations is essential to demonstrate this.”
Julie Robinson, executive director at Greatwell Homes, whose remit includes responsibility for HR, said: “We take our commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion at work very seriously and pride ourselves on being a flexible employer of choice.
“We take a proactive approach to ensuring staff and customers are treated fairly with monitoring and actions undertaken by our employee diversity working group and our ongoing work with the Housing Diversity Network to becoming an accredited organisation.
“This tribunal case relates back to 2020 and we recognise our focus needs to be on taking the time to reflect fully and consider any learnings and recommendations from the employment tribunal’s ruling.”