Employment Law Case Update – October 2023

An interesting look at how not to exclude staff on maternity leave, how to properly handle transgender workers, calculating holiday pay where employees are subject to compulsory overtime and the use of contract clauses to retain employees where discretionary bonus payments are payable which do not amount to restraint of trade.

  • Sex Discrimination: Erosion of reputation as “an effective and useful member of staff” due to pregnancy is discriminatory
  • Sex Discrimination: ‘Deadnaming’ transgender worker amounts to less favourable treatment
  • Holiday Pay: Landmark case confirms a gap of three months or a correct payment does not necessarily break a series of deductions
  • Contract: Bonus clause conditional on staying in employment not restraint of trade

Sex Discrimination: Erosion of reputation as “an effective and useful member of staff” due to pregnancy is discriminatory

In Smith v Greatwell Homes (3316461/2021) a tribunal had to consider the employer’s actions and treatment of Ms Smith, following her declaration to her boss that she was pregnant. This case was reported in People Management on 13 October 2023:

Ms Smith began working at Greatwell Homes in March 2019 as a business improvement analyst within the business improvement team, where she was apparently a valuable and ambitious member of staff. The tribunal noted she was a “credible and consistent witness”. Within her team there were three members of staff: herself, a business improvement manager and a head of business intelligence. However, the person occupying the post of business improvement manager – the person who was meant to be Ms Smith’s line manager – had been absent from August 2019 due to long-term ill health. She never returned to work and resigned in early 2020. Consequently, Ms Smith was required to take on a “significant proportion” of the responsibilities that should have been her line manager’s.

The firm’s head of property services and compliance, Miss Herzig, viewed Ms Smith as a valuable member of the team and encouraged her to apply for a more senior post with line management responsibilities should one become available. In April 2020, Ms Smith informed Miss Herzig that she was pregnant. The tribunal found the news was not effectively communicated to human resources by Miss Herzig, and Ms Smith was required to confirm with HR that she was expecting a baby on two further occasions. “We find that this was symptomatic of the respondent’s attitude towards the claimant and/or to the fact she was pregnant,” it said. 

Ms Smith’s first claim arose during the same month. All staff were given a free day off by the company as a thank you for their efforts during the Covid pandemic. The day off was a Friday, however, when Ms Smith mentioned that she did not work Fridays, the firm refused to allow her to take a different day off. In September 2020, she went on maternity leave. Other than a few emails from HR about pension matters and some personal messages from Miss Herzig, Ms Smith did not hear from her employer during her maternity leave. 

Then in April 2021, Ms Smith received a text message from Miss Herzig in which she was informed that someone had been appointed as her new manager and the firm had also hired a Governance and Assurance Manager, which was only published internally on the company intranet. These were both roles, the tribunal ruled, that would have been opportunities for Ms Smith to progress within the company. The claimant was not happy about the text and what she perceived to be a lack of communication from the respondent during her maternity leave, which went against the company’s maternity policy – which stated that employees on maternity leave must be informed of job vacancies. She commenced a grievance which was heard by Mr Wilesmith, but it was not upheld. 

In August 2021, the respondent began to send job adverts to Ms Smith. This included a re-advertisement of the Governance and Assurance Manager’s post, as the current person occupying the role was on a 12-month contract and it would end in April 2022. The claimant resigned by letter dated 31 August. By a letter of the same day, the respondent accepted her resignation.

The tribunal held that Ms Smith was treated less favourably by the respondent on the grounds that she was on maternity leave, and commented that neither Miss Herzig nor Mr Wilesmith were impressive witnesses. It noted: “Neither demonstrated sufficient knowledge, skills or empathy in the way they dealt with the claimant throughout this process. It was the tribunal’s view that both were ill-equipped to deal with equality and diversity issues. It is incumbent on an employer to make sure that appropriately skilled and experienced staff deal with equality and diversity issues. The respondent had singularly failed in this regard.”

Regarding the free day off, the tribunal said the firm’s decision to not allow her to reschedule a day off was “unfavourable towards part-time workers, and therefore indirectly discriminatory towards female members of staff, as well as deeply unsympathetic in relation to the claimant herself”. It also ruled that Ms Smith “clearly [had] less favourable treatment” because she was on maternity leave as she was “barred from the opportunity” of participating in any recruitment process, or the chance to compete with other applicants to progress her career.

Employment judge Wood said: “In our view, it is clear that Miss Herzig’s view of [Smith] as an effective and useful member of staff had been eroded by the knowledge that she had become pregnant and was on maternity leave. It may have been, in part, a subconscious attitude. Nonetheless, we are clear that it was the reason, or a significant part of the reason, for the unfavourable treatment.” It also said the firm’s decision to send Smith job ads in August 2021 for vacancies that were expected to become available in April the following year were just “window dressing” to disguise the treatment that had gone before. Greatwell Homes was consequently ordered to pay Ms Smith £50,000.

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Sex Discrimination: ‘Deadnaming’ transgender worker amounts to less favourable treatment

In AB v Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames (ET/2303616/2021) the tribunal ruled that the Borough of Kingston Council had committed several acts of direct discrimination against its employee, Miss AB, because of her status as a transgender woman her while she was undergoing a gender transition by using her previous name. The Employment Tribunal upheld 10 of her claims and awarded her nearly £25,000 in damages.

The majority of the claims that succeeded were instances in which she was ‘deadnamed’—the term for referring to a trans person by the name, and therefore gender, that they used before they transitioned. The council used Miss AB’s deadname on her office door pass, her pension records, the staff directory, the internal complaints system and her parking pass, according to the judgment. All of these instances amounted to ‘less favourable treatment’ and were ‘because of the claimant’s protected characteristic’, the tribunal found. The tribunal also sided with Miss AB when she argued that management’s decision to remove some of her job responsibilities was an act of direct discrimination. ‘We conclude that [Miss AB’s manager] in taking this action was not simply acting unreasonably, but that the claimant’s protected characteristic was part of the reason for this treatment’, the tribunal ruled. ‘The claim therefore succeeds’.

The panel also found that management’s response to a complaint from Miss AB was direct discrimination because they failed to take the complaint seriously. It found that management ‘did not treat the claimant’s allegation with respect’ and demonstrated ‘a dismissive attitude towards the issue’. ‘We have to conclude that some part of his reaction was because of the claimant’s protected characteristic’, the panel ruled. Similarly, the tribunal held that a manager fell foul of discrimination law when he failed to properly escalate Miss AB’s complaint. ‘Again, we have to conclude that some part of his reaction and his lack of action was because of the claimant’s protected characteristic’, the panel said.

However, many of Miss AB’s claims failed because she filed them too late and did not give the judge a sufficient reason for her delay. Miss AB argued that her employer’s decision to cut off her direct contact with internal councillors was a discrete, rather than ongoing, act. However, the tribunal found that although the decision had ongoing consequences, it was a discrete act and it fell outside the tribunal’s time limits. The panel also found that a reprimand one of the managers gave Miss AB also took place too long before she filed her claim, but added that the claim would have failed in any event because the reprimand was a reasonable management response to her failing to obey an instruction.

The tribunal disagreed with Miss AB’s argument that the council’s failure to implement a health and safety risk assessment for gender transition was discrimination. There was no obligation to undertake such a risk assessment, the judgment said. The panel also found that the council did fail to have appropriate Equalities Act policies in place but said this ‘was not because of the claimant’s protected characteristic but because of HR failures on a wider scale’.

The tribunal awarded Miss AB £21,000 as compensation for injury to feelings plus £4,423 in interest.

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Holiday Pay: Landmark case confirms a gap of three months or a correct payment does not necessarily break a series of deductions

In Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and another v Agnew and others [2023] UKSC 33 it was held that police officers and civilian staff in Northern Ireland are entitled to claim for underpayments of holiday pay going back many years following their employer’s failure to include overtime in its holiday pay calculations.

The Claimants were police officers and civilian staff working for the police in Northern Ireland. The case arose because they had historically only received basic pay for annual leave but the parties had agreed there had been an underpayment because the holiday pay should have included periods of compulsory overtime. The claimants brought claims for underpayment of holiday pay, and the question before the court was how far did this underpayment go back? The relevant Northern Irish legislation (mirroring the Employment Rights Act 1996) provided that a claim could only be made in respect of a payment made in the three months before the claim was brought. However, if the deduction was part of a series, the deductions could be linked together provided that the claim was brought within three months of the last of the series of deductions.

Previously, the EAT in Bear Scotland v Fulton had previously concluded that deductions could only be linked in a series if there was a gap of three months or less between each deduction but here the Supreme Court has now held that where a series of deductions are all based on an employer failing to properly meets its obligations to pay holiday correctly and, but for the mandatory cut off after 3 months which was set out in Bear Scotland, they would otherwise constitute a series, employees should be able to link each deduction. To hold otherwise would produce unfair consequences.

The Supreme Court held that:

(1) the EU principle of equivalence requires the police officers to be allowed the more advantageous series extension found in the Employment Rights (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 even though they are not workers for the purposes of that legislation,

(2) the series extension is therefore read into the relevant part of the Working Time Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016 to achieve this, and

(3) what constitutes a series of deductions is a question of fact which does not require a contiguous sequence and is not necessarily brought to an end by a gap of three months or a correct payment if that correct payment was calculated when the claimants were at work.

It further found that, (1) there is no legal requirement that leave derived from different sources must be taken in a particular order, (2) it is inappropriate to apply a general principle of using calendar days in the reference period when calculating a worker’s normal pay, and (3) the appropriate reference period when calculating normal pay in any case is a question of fact.

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Contract: Bonus clause conditional on staying in employment not restraint of trade

In Steel v Spencer Road LLP (trading as Omerta Steel) [2023] EWHC 2492 (Ch) the Chancery Division dismissed the appellant’s appeal from a decision which had dismissed his application to set aside a statutory demand served by the respondent. The appellant was a former employee of the respondent. Under the terms of his employment contract, his remuneration was by way of a basic annual salary plus a discretionary bonus scheme. The bonus was conditional on the appellant remaining in the employment of the respondent for three months from the date of payment of any bonus, and not having given or been given notice to terminate his appointment during that period.

In January 2022, the appellant was paid a bonus which was an amount considerably larger than his basic salary at the time. Later, he gave notice of termination of his employment in February. The respondent had requested repayment of the bonus under the clawback provisions in the employment contract. The appellant refused to do so and had argued that the bonus clawback provisions were unenforceable on the grounds that they were in restraint of trade and/or penalty clauses. The court held, among other things, that there was no doubt that an employee bonus or commission scheme which was conditional on the employee remaining in employment for a specified period of time operated as a disincentive to that employee resigning. That had not, however, turned such a provision into a restraint of trade.

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Further Information:

If you would like any additional information, please contact Anne-Marie Pavitt or Sophie Banks on: hello@dixcartuk.com

The information provided within this document is for general informational purposes only. While every effort has been made to ensure its accuracy, no responsibility can be accepted for inaccuracies. Readers are advised that laws and practices may change over time. This document is provided solely for informational purposes and does not constitute accounting, legal, or tax advice. Professional advice should be sought before making any decisions based on the contents of this document.