Pub manager wins harassment claim after ‘poor taste’ sexual innuendos from colleague

16 Aug 2019 By Maggie Baska

Tribunal unanimously finds remarks can be inappropriate even without ‘malicious intent’

A pub manager was sexually harassed after a senior co-worker engaged in “poor taste humour” by making sexual innuendos towards her, an employment tribunal (ET) has ruled. 

The Sheffield ET ruled that even without any “malicious intent” on the part of the perpetrator, making sexual innuendos could reasonably be perceived as violating an individual’s dignity and creating a hostile work environment. 

Judge J M Wade said that Ms J Prewett, who worked for pub chain Greene King from 1995 until her resignation on 5 December 2018, was used to dealing with a wide range of customers and encounters in her working life as a pub manager.

However, the statements in question were made by a colleague “with whom, at the time of these events, she had a very serious job to do”, and were therefore inappropriate.

Wade added Prewett had, at the time of the incident, “enough on her plate, and the last thing she needed were attempts at humour of that particular kind.”

A claim of unfair dismissal was dismissed.

On 20 July 2018, the Big Tree pub in Sheffield, of which Prewett was the manager, failed an audit, and Prewett was invited to a disciplinary hearing where she was given a final written warning. Prewett accepted the outcome of the disciplinary. 

On 1 August, Mr Gaunt, Prewett’s line manager, and Mr Bentley, the company’s risk manager, arranged to meet Prewett at the pub to discuss and review the measures on kitchen standards in place. 

The tribunal heard that when Prewett joined them with her paperwork, she heard Bentley ask Gaunt: “Do you know what a growler is?”

Gaunt replied he did not know, and Bentley told Prewett: “If you know don’t tell him,” before telling a joke about a “bloke saying when I ask for a growler, I don’t want a pork pie”.

The tribunal heard that “growler” was a Yorkshire term for a pork pie, but was also “in some quarters a slang term for a vagina”. 

Prewett was confused by the apparent joke as she was unaware of the word’s meaning, and she was uneasy because Bentley had included her in the conversation. 

She asked some of her colleagues what the term meant before her deputy chef at the time explained its slang meaning. She said when she fully understood the joke, she felt unhappy about it. 

Bentley visited the pub again on 13 August, and when Prewett asked him what he wanted to see first, he responded: “depends on what’s on offer”. Bentley then touched her on the back of her shoulder before they went into the kitchen.

On 11 September, she phoned Gaunt and told him she was resigning because of harassment by Bentley. She confirmed her stance in an email the next day.

Gaunt asked her if she wanted to make a formal complaint, and she said that she did. As a result, he attended at the pub a few days later and took statements from Prewett and another colleague who witnessed the incident on 13 August. 

Gaunt gave his own account of the event on 1 August in an email, and he described Bentley as “his usual jovial self” and had told “a lame joke” on that occasion. 

Bentley also gave evidence in which he said he had a conversation with Prewett about real ale sales, and that was the context in which the word “growler” was used as the name of a vessel in which to sell real ale. The tribunal did not accept this evidence, instead preferring Prewett’s evidence.

Greene King rejected Prewett’s grievance on 19 October as well as her subsequent appeal against the grievance outcome. 

She brought complaints of sexual harassment and unfair dismissal to the Sheffield ET. The tribunal dismissed her claims of unfair dismissal, but unamiously ruled she had been the victim of sexual harassment by her former employer.  

The tribunal ordered Greene King to pay Prewett £5,000. 

Chris Bushnell, employment expert at Gunnercooke, said this case is a reminder for employers to ensure they provide relevance training to staff on what is and is not acceptable behaviour in the workplace, and that staff should err on the side of caution if they are not sure.

“Much of what is sometimes described as ‘banter’ may in reality amount to harassment,” Bushnell said. “It is not only the intention behind a comment that matters, but also the effect on the complainant – intending a comment as a ‘joke’ does not make it okay.”

A Greene King spokesperson said the company is unable to comment on internal matters, but added that it "does not tolerate discrimination or abuse in any form" and treats allegations "extremely seriously by taking appropriate action".

Prewett could not be reached for comment.

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