A marketing director who was dismissed while on maternity leave when she refused to take a lesser role with a £20,000 pay cut was discriminated against, a tribunal has ruled.
The London Central employment tribunal ruled that Mrs S Shipp was the victim of a “serious case of maternity discrimination” when bosses treated her with “stark difference” compared to her male colleagues, adding that the only explanation for the difference was that she was on maternity leave.
The tribunal also found that Shipp was subjected to a “humiliating and degrading environment” at City Sprint UK when bosses placed a bet on how much weight she would gain during her pregnancy.
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Her claims of unfair dismissal, pregnancy/maternity discrimination, indirect sex discrimination and breach of contract were successful. A further claim of victimisation was not upheld.
Shipp worked for courier firm City Sprint from 6 September 2010 until she was made redundant on 30 September 2020. She was appointed as marketing director in 2016 and her salary was increased to £100,000. She was promoted to group marketing director in 2018 but did not receive a pay rise.
In February 2019, Shipp told her colleagues she was pregnant. She claimed that on hearing the news, the director of operations asked her when she had stopped taking contraception and asked how she thought the pregnancy would affect her long-term career prospects.
The tribunal heard that during the same meeting, which was with the all-male executive team, Shipp was subjected to “offensive and humiliating” comments, and that the chief executive at the time remarked that they should “put a wager” on how much weight she would put on during her pregnancy.
Shipp raised her feelings about the comments informally with head of HR, Ms Kilcoyne, before she went on maternity leave on 10 June 2019.
While she was on maternity leave, the company underwent a restructure and the board dismissed several executives as part of cost-cutting measures. However, the tribunal noted that nobody contacted Shipp about the restructure. A new chief executive, Mr West, was also appointed.
The tribunal saw evidence that from the start West had decided not to include Shipp in the restructure.
On 20 September, Kilcoyne informed Shipp of her potential redundancy. A few days later, on 26 September, Shipp discovered a new organisational chart had been created with no role for her, and that she had been removed from the marketing team email distribution list.
Shipp met with West on 3 October, when West told Shipp he had “heard nothing about her and did not even know when she had gone on maternity leave, or when she was due to return”.
When she asked about why her role was no longer available, West told Shipp to speak to Kilcoyne.
On 7 October, Kilcoyne sent Shipp a job description for the director of marketing role – a lower-level role than marketing director – and after reviewing the role, Shipp said she was “concerned as to whether [it] existed at all”.
Shipp told Kilcoyne that the job description read “more like a generic job advert rather than a job profile specific to City Sprint”, and said it was not clear why the process had been so different for her compared to other members of the executive team.
The tribunal found that the evidence indicated Kilcoyne had copied job descriptions from other websites when putting the job role together because “no such role existed” in the company.
Shipp was later told the salary for the new role was £80,000 per year: £20,000 less than her previous role. However, the tribunal noted that other group executives who had been retained in different roles did not have their salaries reduced.
On 3 December, Shipp raised a formal grievance about the redundancy process as she believed she was being discriminated against. She said it seemed “very convenient” that the only person who was demoted from board level was the person who was on maternity leave at the time the decisions were made.
Her grievance was not upheld, nor was her subsequent appeal, and Shipp was dismissed on 30 March 2020 because her role was redundant.
However, the tribunal found that a few weeks later, on 8 April, emails were exchanged between Kilcoyne and the grievance manager saying that they could appoint an alternative candidate to Shipp’s role, adding that “the crisis is over”.
In the email, Kilcoyne noted that the new candidate could not immediately be appointed to the board as it would “open the way to constructive dismissal accusations” from Shipp, but it went on to say they could “of course” be promoted to the board after six months.
The tribunal ruled that Shipp was “treated unfavourably because she was on maternity leave” and that the redundancy consultation was a “sham”. It also said that West deliberately made the new role unattractive so she would refuse it.
Employment Judge H Grewal said that the redundancy notice came as a “complete shock” to Shipp and that it had caused her “immense stress” in what should have been a “cherished period of her life”.
“There cannot be anything worse for a woman on maternity leave to find out that she has lost her job because she was on maternity leave and then to have to spend her maternity leave fighting to get her job back,” the judge said.
City Sprint was ordered to pay Shipp £30,000 in compensation for unfair dismissal, maternity discrimination, sex discrimination, injury to feelings, and breach of contract.
Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, said that the case was a reminder of the significance of comments relating to pregnancy.
“Intrusive comments relating to pregnancy, which here included reference to contraception and bets on weight gain, if single and isolated may not stand out, but a number of comments, by a number of colleagues, is likely to create a humiliating and degrading atmosphere,” said Palmer, adding that employers should “act carefully and ensure those on maternity leave are kept fully informed of any changes that might impact on their job.
A CitySprint Spokesperson told People Management: “Whilst we’re disappointed with the judgment handed down by the employment tribunal, the actions and behaviours described are clearly unacceptable and in no way reflect the current values or culture of our business.
“Over the past 18 months the business has gone through a significant period of transformation, with a change of leadership team and major investment in our HR and people function. We are confident that the right processes now exist to ensure CitySprint remains an inclusive and welcoming place for all to work.”
Shipp could not be reached for comment.