Legal Corner: Pregnant employee harassed out

28th Jun 2019

Many employers struggle with the issues that arise in managing a pregnant employee. This is more often the case for smaller employers or those with fewer resources. A recent case heard in the Employment Tribunal provided a stark example of the difficulties that pregnant women can face at work.

Eilise Walker was an experienced manager in the building trade who had taken some time out to work for her husband. She was approached by a professional contact about the possibility of taking over an office manager position at a small asbestos removal company Arco Environmental Ltd. Their offices were some distance from her home, and so after meeting the company directors, it was agreed that she would undertake a three-day trial. Arco were happy with her work and she enjoyed it but asked if her hours could change from their offered 9-5 to 8-4 to reduce the amount of time she spent in traffic. This was agreed, and she commenced her new role working four days per week.

Mrs Walker enjoyed her work and was well thought of; she had a close working relationship with the management team (made up of the owner of the company, Mr Rees, his wife, and two other directors). She described the office environment as friendly and informal.

Two weeks into her new role, Mrs Walker found out that she was pregnant with her second child. She decided that she should inform her new employer straight away, even though she did not need to, as she wanted to give them the maximum amount of time to prepare for her maternity leave. Although she was congratulated, Mrs Walker sensed an immediate change between herself and the management team. She attempted to greet Mr and Mrs Rees and was ignored. Shortly after that, she was called into a meeting with two directors, at which she was asked if she had known she was pregnant when she accepted the job. Mrs Walker was then told to ‘tread carefully’ around Mr Rees, which she understood to mean that he (and they) were unhappy that she was pregnant so soon after starting her role. Mrs Walker formed the impression that Arco thought that she had accepted the job to ensure that she received maternity pay from them, rather than her husband’s company. It was clear that the directors thought that there might be some negative financial implications for them in paying her maternity pay (even though there were none). She, therefore, sent a text message to one of the directors after that meeting to make it clear that there was no financial advantage to her or her husband in taking the job and asking for that message to be passed to Mr Rees. She did not receive a reply.

The following day, Mrs Walker again felt that she was being ‘blanked’ by Mr and Mrs Rees, and in fact when they left the office in the afternoon broke down in tears in front of one of the directors, complaining about how she was being treated. She was simply told that a meeting the directors were attending with an HR consultant the following day should help to resolve matters. Following that meeting, Mrs Walker was informed that a risk assessment had been undertaken and that as a result she was no longer permitted to work in the office alone. She was told that her hours would be changed back to 9-5. She was also told that consideration was being given to changing her working days, even though the one day she did not work had been selected because it was the day her daughter did not go to the nursery. Mrs Walker was so upset about the way that she had been treated, and the changes being imposed on her without discussion or explanation, that she resigned immediately.

Mrs Walker brought claims of harassment and discrimination on the grounds of her pregnancy, as well as a claim for constructive unfair dismissal. Although Arco had strongly denied all her allegations, when questioned at the hearing the directors accepted that after they became aware of Mrs Walker’s pregnancy, there had been an ‘atmosphere’ in the office and a lack of awareness of how to deal with it, which led to ‘inappropriate,’ questions being asked and comments made. Mrs Walker was successful in all her claims and a future hearing will determine what compensation she is entitled to.

This case is a stark reminder of the need to ensure that pregnant employees are treated fairly, with dignity and respect. Employers are well advised to seek advice before taking any significant steps in relation to a pregnant employee which might be considered to be detrimental to them.

Safia Tharoo, Barrister, 42 Bedford Row, London

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