Director unfairly dismissed while on maternity leave
Case Study: Director unfairly dismissed while on maternity leave after refusing to take £20k pay cut
Mrs Shipp, a Group Marketing Director, had been employed by City Sprint, a firm that provides courier services, since September 2010. She started maternity leave in June 2019.
In February 2019, Shipp revealed her pregnancy to colleagues, only to be subjected to a series of offensive and humiliating comments. One colleague asked when she had stopped taking contraception and how she thought the pregnancy would affect her career prospects. Another ‘bantered’ that they should put a wager on how much weight she would put on during her pregnancy. Shortly after, another colleague teased that when Shipp had to leave the little one at nursery, she wouldn’t want to come back.
Prior to starting maternity leave, Shipp raised her feelings about the comments informally with the HR department, stating she felt the comments were offensive and humiliating. HR offered to speak to the colleagues in question, but Shipp declined this offer.
Unbeknownst to Shipp, City Sprint undertook a restructure during her maternity leave which resulted in her being the only remaining member of the executive team.
In September 2019, HR notified Shipp that her role was at risk of redundancy. Days later, Shipp discovered the new organisational chart which did not include her. She had also been removed from the marketing team email distribution list.
Shipp questioned why her role was no longer available with a newly appointed Chief Executive, Mr West who told her to speak to HR. In October 2019, HR sent Shipp a job description for the director of marketing role (a less well paid and lower-level role than her existing one). Shipp was told the alternative role came with a £20k pay cut.
In December 2019, Shipp raised a grievance against City Sprint asserting that she had been discriminated against and that it seemed convenient that the only person demoted from board level was the person who was on maternity leave when decisions were made.
Shipp’s grievance wasn’t upheld by the Company, neither was her subsequent appeal. In March 2020, Shipp was informed that her employment was being terminated because her role was redundant.
In April 2020, an email exchange between HR and Shipp’s grievance manager stated that they could now appoint an alternative to Shipp’s role however, the new candidate couldn’t immediately be appointed to the board as it would lead to constructive dismissal claims but proposed the candidate could be promoted to the board after six months.
Shipp bought a claim against City Sprint at the Employment Tribunal, claiming unfair dismissal. The Tribunal was presented with evidence showing that Mr West decided not to include Shipp in the restructure. It also noted that Shipp’s colleagues who has been retained in alternative roles did not have their pay reduced.
In addition, the Tribunal found that the job description for the director of marketing role was created by HR by putting together various job descriptions from other websites because no such role existed within City Sprint.
The Tribunal found a number of flaws in City Sprint’s processes ruling unfair dismissal, maternity discrimination, sex discrimination, injury to feelings and breach of contract.
The Tribunal ruled that Shipp was treated less favourably because she was on maternity leave calling the redundancy consultation a sham. It also regarded the colleagues’ comments as unfavourable, which in turn, amounted to harassment related to sex.
What does this mean in practice?
Employers should act carefully and ensure that workers who are on maternity leave are kept fully informed of any changes in the workplace that may impact their job.
The law provides that employers must not discriminate against someone they employ or are considering employing because of their pregnancy, any pregnancy-related illness or maternity leave. The law applies from the point of pregnancy until either:
- their maternity leave ends;
- they return to work; or
- they leave their role.
Employers may only dismiss an employee who is pregnant or on maternity leave where there is a genuine business reason for doing so and such reason is entirely unconnected to their pregnancy or maternity leave. Employers must follow ACAS compliant processes and ensure they consult with all employees irrespective of their maternity/paternity status.
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