2010 saw a number of gaffes made by businesses in their handling of employees. We highlight some of them but urge readers not to get too smug – even the most sophisticated of HR teams slip up from time to time. At a time when employment law is changing fast, it can be hard for managers to keep abreast of the latest developments. Indeed, HR people often find themselves dealing with an issue from a manager who has paid scant regard to developing law.
- In making redundant its 42-year old head of marketing, a bank spelled out in a briefing document its plan to recruit a new marketing team leader with a "younger, more entrepreneurial profile (not a headline rainmaker)". This was held to be age discrimination.
- A firm of solicitors wrote a reference for an ex-employee which mentioned her sex discrimination complaint (which they had settled years previously) and "inflexible attitude". Having the last word cost them dear. Her job offer was withdrawn and they were ordered to pay her loss of earnings as a result of this victimisation.
- "Who's the daddy?" Office gossip about the possible paternity of an employee's unborn child resulted in compensation for sexual harassment. Following an office Christmas party the employee discovered that she was pregnant. Within an hour of her bringing her pregnancy to the firm's HR director's attention the news had done the rounds of the office.
- For years the waitresses at Munchkins Restaurant put up with the sexualised atmosphere created by their manager. They were made to wear short skirts, and were subjected to talk of a sexual nature on an almost daily basis. Even though the women also quizzed the offending manager about his sex life, the tribunal saw this as a "diversionary tactic", and upheld their claims of sexual harassment.
- The Daily Mail reported in April last year how a shop manager was sacked by text message, but his lack of a year's service meant that the employer escaped liability. Arguably, the employer was working within the bounds of the law. However, if the Government manages to push through its proposal to extend the minimum service requirement to claim unfair dismissal from one to to two years, many more employers may be tempted to "play the system" to cut costs.
- In contrast, a Dundee barmaid was awarded over £14,000 after being sacked by text message, following an incident where she overslept and missed her shift.
- A warning for businesses who are considering cutting the workforce this year: a television company landed in hot water when it made redundant two mothers with young children who job-shared. The two were also the only part-time employees out of a workforce of 180.
- The public sector did not escape censure: one English Council fell foul of the Equal Pay Act (now in its fifth decade) for the sheer scale of the pay differences amongst male and female employees (some men received bonuses of 160% of basic pay, whereas women received nothing). This case also contained the startling revelation that male refuse collectors could take home more than £50,000 compared to women on the same grade who took home less than £12,000.
- A 56-year old lady was the preferred candidate for an internal role within an NHS Trust, but after she revealed her age during the interview, the interviewer confessed, "I didn't realise you were so old", and the role was given to a 43-year old with 35 years' less experience. She was awarded £187,000 for the blatant age discrimination.
- Football managers often face the chop when their team is playing badly, but we had fears that Blackburn Rovers may have scored an own-goal after Big Sam Allardyce's departure in December, when its owners commented, "We want a younger, more energetic appointment." It remains to be seen whether litigation will result.
These cases are just a few that made the headlines over the last twelve months. The truth is that they are not exceptional. Any business that takes the time to keep its managers informed about basic employment law, and trained in how to handle employees will be making a wise investment in its future and will reduce the number of instances that lead to calls to the lawyers to help.