Sex Discrimination: Be Wary of Gossip
In Nixon v Ross Coates Solicitors and another, the EAT found that a Tribunal had been wrong not to characterise gossip about an employee's pregnancy as discrimination and harassment under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Further, the EAT directed that the Tribunal was wrong to reduce the compensation awarded to Ms Nixon by 90% for contributory conduct in respect of her constructive unfair dismissal claim.
Ms Nixon was seen kissing another employee and then going to a hotel room with the employee after the firm’s Christmas party. Ms Nixon later discovered that she was pregnant and informed the managing partner of this fact. Within an hour of her doing so, the HR manager knew of the pregnancy and the rumour mill kicked into action. Ms Nixon raised a grievance and asked to be moved. However, the firm did not deal with the grievance and did not pay her for her time off work that she took as a result of the stress that she suffered. It was concluded that Ms Nixon was constructively dismissed as a result.
The EAT found that the gossip, regarding the paternity of her child, was clearly related to her pregnancy and therefore this amounted to sex discrimination and harassment. Her related absence from work also amounted to sex discrimination, as it related to her pregnancy. This case confirms that it is relatively easy for pregnant employees to invoke the protection of the discrimination legislation, as the conduct need only be “related” to pregnancy.
The case is also a good illustration of the types of problems that may arise as a result of office Christmas parties. Further, it is a good reminder that matters of this sort should remain strictly confidential (even if it would make good gossip…).
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