An office manager was discriminated against after she was told she was not allowed to work remotely from her son’s hospital bedside as he underwent treatment for cancer, a tribunal has ruled.
The Leeds employment tribunal found that Lorraine Hodgson, who worked for Martin Design Associates until her resignation in July 2019, was directly discriminated against on the grounds of sex and was constructively unfairly dismissed after her boss denied her remote working request in part because of “his belief that he knew best for the claimant”.
Judge Wade found the firm’s managing director, Chris Martin, made the decision that Hodgson “could not work and look after her son’s needs in hospital, whatever she thought”, and that Martin “gave her views no credit [and] had a closed mind to the idea that she could fulfil all or part of her role remotely”. This was despite the fact a company laptop and telephone was available and much of her work could have been completed remotely.
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Giving evidence to the tribunal, Martin likened the decision to deny Hodgson’s request to carry on working remotely to a rugby player who asked to continue playing after sustaining a head injury, and needed to have the decision taken away from them. He said: “As a caring family man I would not expect my wife or any member of my staff to continue working in such a stressful situation.”
However, the tribunal found that the firm’s refusal to allow Hodgson to work remotely was “in stark contrast to the approach taken to male colleagues”, whose requests for remote working were granted on both a short-term basis and more enduring long-term arrangements.
Wade said there was no suggestion that remote working arrangements might not be good for the families or the wellbeing of those male colleagues in their particular circumstances, or that Martin knew better than they did about what would be best for them.
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The court also found money played a role in Martin’s decision to deny flexible working following Hodgson’s son’s diagnosis. When she was told on 14 November that arrangements had been made to cover her work, the claimant asked why she could not continue with it and Martin replied: “I can’t ask you to do that, Lorraine.”
She explained that she needed to work to pay her mortgage, and as something positive to do at the hospital, to which Martin replied that he “didn’t have an open cheque book”.
Instead, the tribunal heard that Martin said Hodgson should take holiday for the first two weeks of her absence and then go on unpaid leave, and that her job would be there for her when her son was well again.
The tribunal heard the business had already engaged someone to take over Hodgson’s duties, and that, “having arranged cover for the claimant, [Martin] did not want to be in the position of having to pay two people at the same time”. The court ruled this was consistent with his subsequent suggestion during the 14 November call that the claimant take unpaid leave.
Wade said that while damage to the claimant’s health by the time of this hearing was primarily caused by her son’s illness and ongoing care for him, “it is very clear that her emotional state was made worse by Mr Martin’s decision, from mid-November 2018, not to agree to remote working”.
Ultimately, the claimant suffered considerable injury to feelings compounded by her “knowledge of the treatment of her colleagues, her long and loyal service, the fact that equipment was available and the failure of Mr Martin at any stage to even trial remote working arrangements”, said Wade.
Wade ruled that Martin “would have accepted that a male colleague was best placed to know what he could and could not do in such circumstances and would have put arrangements in place”.
Hodgson was awarded £5,000 for aggravated damages occasioned by direct sex discrimination and £7,500 for injury to feelings as a result of direct sex discrimination.
A further unfair dismissal award was made of £8,186.58; a compensatory award of £350; an additional injury to feelings award of £10,000; £21,886 for financial loss; plus interest, amounting to a total of £59,612.58. Claims for disability discrimination and failures to make reasonable adjustments failed.
Hodgson has been contacted for comment. Martin Design Associates declined to comment.