Employee propositioned by boss in explicit call suffered sex discrimination, tribunal rules

1 Feb 2018 By Marianne Calnan

Director told female staff member he ‘wanted to make love’ to her and would ensure her continued employment if she complied

An employee who was sexually propositioned by her boss in text messages and phone calls was discriminated against on the grounds of her sex, an employment tribunal has ruled. 

On 10 and 17 February 2017, Manchester Employment Tribunal heard that Michael Bennett, director of Stockport-based Uniquely Chic Furniture, sexually harassed his direct report, Amanda Steele, by making sexually explicit requests by phone and text. 

These included expressing his desire to “make love” to her, impose himself on her sexually and come to her house to pursue this aim.

In a claim form, Steele outlined how Bennett told her during two telephone calls on 22 December 2016, when drunk, that she would “not lose her job” if the pair engaged in sexual intercourse, and that he would still pay her wages if she submitted to his demands. 

Shortly after, Bennett, husband of fellow company director Miss Scully, called Steele again. Thinking he would apologise, she picked up the call, she told the tribunal. 

His conversation continued in the same way, including telling Steele he planned to come to her house to pursue his advances. Steele told Bennett she was hanging up and he told her he loved her.

Steele contacted Acas, as well as the Citizens Advice Bureau. 

Steele was driven to work the day after the incident by Scully, as the two were friends. Bennett had already informed his wife that he would not be attending work that day, and had told her about the calls. He said, however, that Steele has been drunk and had rambled about her personal life. Steele made no mention of the conversations to anyone at work. 

Bennett sent a further text message to Steele asking her how she was on Christmas Eve 2016, which read: “Hey up baba ! How are you.? X” She did not respond.

On 4 January 2017, Steele was due to return to work but could not face it. She sent a text message to Scully stating she would not come into work because she was unwell. She reported the incident to the police the same day, but asked them to take no further action.

Steele was signed off sick with stress for two weeks on 13 January 2017, after telling her doctor what had happened. She also looked for alternative work at this time, and resigned by email to Scully, citing the stress and anxiety Bennett caused. In her response, Scully asked why Steele came to work the day after the incident.

A preliminary hearing was held on 18 May 2017, at which the company unsuccessfully applied to strike out the claim. Bennett also attempted to discredit Steele by claiming she had an addiction to painkillers and wine, and that it was she who was intoxicated with alcohol during the calls. 

In a judgment published on 26 January 2018, Judge Holmes said he trusted Steele’s evidence to be credible, and allowed her sex discrimination claim.

He said the discrimination Steele experienced caused her anxiety and stress, leading her to undergo psychotherapy, and found that she had not only lost a job she enjoyed, but also Scully’s friendship. He also found Scully’s reaction to Steele’s disclosure “surprisingly restrained given the nature of the allegations”. 

Uniquely Chic Furniture and Bennett denied the allegations and called Steele’s account “entirely fictitious”.

Ranjit Dhindsa, partner and head of the employment, pensions and immigration team at Fieldfisher, advised employers to create “safe workplace cultures where employees are encouraged to speak up” about this sort of incident.

Dhindsa said Bennett reacted “emotionally rather than rationally” in attempting to discredit Steele. She told People Management that this case should remind employers to seek immediate legal advice when employees come forward about sexual harassment or assault, and to act appropriately or risk tribunal judgments negatively affecting the company’s reputation.

“Potential new employees and those thinking about doing business with your company could easily some across case details,” she said.

Naeema Choudry, employment partner at Eversheds Sutherland, said employers have a duty to make sure harassers understand the effect of their conduct. 

“Employers’ starting point in rooting out such conduct is to ensure standards of behaviour are communicated, possibly via a code of conduct that is clear and accessible to staff,” Choudry added.

Uniquely Chic Furniture had not responded to People Management’s request for further comment by press time.  

The company is reportedly appealing the ruling. Steele was awarded £25,000 for injury to feelings when the tribunal reconvened for a remedy hearing on 4 Jan 2018, The Sun reported.

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