Sexual harassment victory for sales manager ‘repeatedly asked to massage boss’

8 May 2019 By Maggie Baska

Tribunal points to HR’s failure to investigate claims of ‘inappropriate’ behaviour during trip to trade show

A sales manager has won a claim for sexual harassment after she was asked multiple times for a massage by her managing director, who also requested she sleep with him. 

The Cambridge employment tribunal ruled in favour of Emma Woolf, finding that an HR manager and an external consultant brought in to investigate her grievance both failed to fairly and objectively consider harassment allegations.

Judge Cassel said: “Neither… really looked fairly and objectively into the allegations and were quick to reach conclusions that there was nothing to support allegations made by the claimant.”

Woolf worked as a sales manager for Universal Science, a Milton Keynes-based thermal cooling material provider, from August 2016 until she resigned in November 2017. 

Three months after she began work, Woolf booked a two-bedroomed flat for a trade show in London. James Stratford, managing director of Universal Science, subsequently confirmed he would attend the event and share the flat.

During the conference, at a corporate dinner held on 23 November, the tribunal heard Stratford’s behaviour towards Woolf was “inappropriate”. One witness described how Stratford appeared to have consumed a considerable amount of alcohol and was “leaning his body” into his female colleague while talking to her at the table. He said he noticed how uncomfortable Woolf looked.

A second witness described Stratford as “all over” Woolf and considered that, by the look on her face, she was “embarrassed about her new boss” and looked very uncomfortable.

Stratford denied having had too much to drink, learning into Woolf’s space and behaving in a harassing manner. He added that “anybody sitting next to him would have had the same experience”. He said he was not overly familiar, and the two were “basically enjoying each other’s company”.

While this incident was not part of the claim, the tribunal accepted it as evidence that Straftord was acting inappropriately in a sexually harassing manner.

That evening, Woolf and Stratford returned to their accommodation. The tribunal heard Stratford sat on the sofa and asked Woolf for a shoulder massage. He then asked her to sleep with him, which she declined, telling him it was “totally inappropriate”. 

Stratford then went to lie on his bed and asked her again for a massage. Woolf went to her room and locked the door.

Stratford denied the evidence. But the tribunal found he had consumed “a considerable amount of alcohol”, and the behaviour was not inconsistent with the actions he exhibited over dinner

The following day, 24 November, the tribunal heard Stratford walked around the apartment wearing nothing more than a small towel. Woolf told the tribunal that, as a result of such behaviour, she soon commenced seeking alternative employment.

Stratford asked Woolf again for a shoulder massage on 12 May 2017 while in the office. She declined and told him it was inappropriate. He repeated the request “on several occasions”. 

At one point, Woolf emailed Stratford with a brochure of a local massage company she believed would help “with his apparent neck pain”.

He replied by email, saying: “Nice one … is she Swedish?”

On 29 September, during a charity dinner that both Woolf and Stratford attended, Stratford answered a question as to whether they were a couple by saying he had “tried at least 20 times” but had been rejected by Woolf.

Woolf resigned on 12 November 2017 and submitted a grievance letter in respect to non-payment of commission and allegations of sexual harassment. 

Jacky Langridge, Universal Science’s HR manager, wrote to Woolf asking for evidence of the harassment, which was later provided. 

A formal grievance meeting was held on 24 November, and Rachel Campbell, a consultant who was appointed to undertake the grievance inquiry, concluded there was “no evidence to support Emma’s allegations of sexual harassment”. She recommended that the grievance be dismissed due to lack of evidence. 

But the tribunal ruled in Woolf’s favour, saying she suffered sexual harassment by her employer and by Stratford. Judge Cassel said neither Campbell nor Langridge “really looked fairly and objectively into the allegations and were quick to reach conclusions that there was nothing to support allegations made by [Woolf].”

“It was apparent to us that any reasonable investigation would have uncovered those matters which were expressed in evidence so convincingly before us,” Campbell said. 

However, Woolf’s claims for sexual victimisation and breach of contract were dismissed. 

Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory at Peninsula UK, said that in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the case provided another warning about behaviour outside the office, especially when drinking alcohol at social events.

“If this can be deemed as part of the individual’s employment, then the employer will be liable for any acts of harassment unless they can defend this by showing they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent the harassing behaviour,” Palmer said. 

She advised that putting rules in place about appropriate conduct and consumption of alcohol could make the difference between facing such allegations and ensuring staff behave professionally and lawfully at work-related social events. 

The tribunal set a date to rule on a remedy in September 2019. Emma Woolf could not be reached for comment. Universal Science and James Stratford have been contacted for comment.

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