HR professional asked to do the laundry following maternity leave awarded £18,000 for injury to her feelings
It's depressing that some employers still perceive women who become pregnant and take maternity leave as lacking dedication and being inconvenient to the business. A recent case, Messum v Bradford Management Services Ltd demonstrates why these outdated beliefs can lead employers to make discriminatory decisions.
Mrs Messum was employed by Bradford as an executive HR assistant. She was highly qualified and was valued by her employer. However, after she became pregnant, her boss stopped talking to her and became angry and questioned her performance. He asked her to undertake physically demanding tasks in the warehouse and she became unwell and was signed off work due to pregnancy related fatigue and stress.
Whilst she was on sick leave, Bradford asked Mrs Messum to attend an investigatory meeting to discuss an 'urgent matter' that had arisen but didn't give her any other information. Mrs Messum said that she couldn't attend the meeting because of her illness and supplied a note from her doctor confirming this. In response, the employer triggered the start of Mrs Messum's maternity leave and, in the same letter, told her that it would rearrange the investigatory meeting and asked her to let them know when it was convenient to meet.
Two months after Mrs Messum gave birth, she received another letter from her employer asking her to attend the investigatory meeting. It warned her that if she didn't attend, disciplinary action might follow. Mrs Messum told them that she couldn't attend as she was fully committed to the care of her baby and her employer responded by asking for the meeting to take place at her home. Mrs Messum explained that she 'was not in a good position to attend' and asked for understanding. She lodged a grievance about the way she had been treated (and the fact that she hadn't received sick pay). She also asked for details of the allegations against her and said that she would respond to these in writing. She didn't receive a response.
After she returned to work, she attended an investigatory meeting, during which she was accused of stealing food from the canteen. She said that her manager had given permission for her to take food home when she had worked late and didn't have time to take a break. She received a verbal warning which she unsuccessfully appealed.
Mrs Messum's duties also changed after she returned to work. Her HR duties were taken off her and she was instead asked to process sales orders and, later on, to do housekeeping duties - including laundry. She complained about this and after nothing was done, she resigned, claiming that she had been unfairly dismissed, had suffered pregnancy/maternity discrimination, harassment related to her sex and a number of other claims.
The tribunal upheld the following claims:
1. Unfair dismissal
It found that the company's actions had undermined the implied duty of trust and confidence by requiring her to attend an investigatory meeting when she was off work, not telling her why it wanted to investigate her, not providing evidence to support allegations that she had stolen food, issuing a verbal warning without holding a disciplinary hearing, and by delaying dealing with her appeal and grievance. In addition, their relationship had been fundamentally damaged by changing her duties. With regard to the latter point, the employer tried to persuade the tribunal that Mrs Messum's job description was flexible enough to include performing menial tasks. The tribunal gave that explanation short shrift and made it clear that the employer couldn't rely on this to fundamentally change her job role or functions.
2. Pregnancy and maternity discrimination
Removing Mrs Messum's HR duties and effectively demoting her was unfavourable treatment because of pregnancy/maternity.
The tribunal found that writing to the Mrs Messum inviting her to an investigation meeting when she was on pregnancy-related sickness absence and then writing twice more during her maternity leave, culminating in a request to hold a meeting at her home when her baby was around eight weeks old, was unwanted conduct that related to sex.
The tribunal awarded Mrs Messum £18,000 for injury to feelings, an additional ACAS uplift of 25% (because the employer had not followed the Acas Code of Practice) plus interest amounting to £28,000. That's in the middle of the middle Vento band that applied at the time, suitable for cases that do not merit an award in the upper band.
In 2016, the government and EHRC published a report examining the prevalence and nature of pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace. It found that 11% of mothers lost their employment because they were dismissed (including via compulsory redundancy) or were treated so poorly that they felt they had to leave their job. In the same year, evidence compiled by the Women and Equalities Committee found that discrimination had increased since similar research by the Equal Opportunities Commission in 2005.
The situation doesn't appear to have improved much, if at all, since then. Recent research from the charity Pregnant Then Screwed, revealed that over half of all mothers have faced some discrimination when pregnant, on maternity leave or when they returned. And, one in five mothers, left their job following a negative or discriminatory experience.
That's not to say that all employers are at fault. We work with lots of employers (large and small) who get this right. The legal protections afforded to employees who become pregnant and who take family-related leave haven't fundamentally changed in many years and there is a fair bit of reliable (and free) information available to help employers the legal obligations they owe to their staff.
I suspect that those businesses that end up discriminating against pregnant staff, or those returning from maternity leave, do so because they focus on the impact it has on their business (such as having to undertake specific risk assessments, allowing staff to take time off to attend antenatal appointments, recruiting temporary replacements and dealing with flexible working applications). They see pregnancy as an inconvenience, and in some cases, evidence that the employee isn't committed to their job.
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