A woman who took on her former employer over sexual harassment has been paid £270,000 ($492,000) by the City firm, which opted to settle just prior to a further legal hearing of the case.
Investment associate Nathalie Abildgaard’s claim against her former employer, IFM Investors (an Australian private equity fund manager), had been considered a rare example of a sexual harassment case against a City employer reaching a hearing. It had been heard at the Central London Employment Tribunal.
Since the harassment incident, Abildgaard had founded a charity aimed at supporting victims of workplace harassment, which a large proportion of the money paid by IFM to her has gone to.
The claim stemmed from an incident on a work trip to Spain just over a year ago. Several IFM employees went to a nightclub in Madrid to celebrate the closing of a deal. During the course of the evening, one of the executive directors of IFM, 50-year-old Frederic Michel-Verdier, allegedly made unwelcome sexual advances towards 27-year-old Abildgaard, including sending her text messages inviting her to his hotel room and, according to media reports, telling her that “if I was 20 years younger, I would have been all over you”.
Abildgaard also alleged Michel-Verdier told her: “I know more about sex. I can teach you a lot of things.”
Following an investigation, IFM cut Michel-Verdier’s bonus and banned him from drinking at work events for 12 months but took no further action. Abildgaard resigned and brought a number of claims, including for sexual harassment.
Michel-Verdier denied that he made any sexual advances towards Abildgaard but said it may have been “irresponsible and naive” to send his hotel room number to a female colleague.
A joint statement about the settlement issued by both parties’ lawyers said: “IFM Investors and a former employee, Nathalie Abildgaard, have reached a settlement agreement in relation to Ms. Abildgaard’s employment tribunal claim including her claims for sexual harassment, constructive dismissal and victimisation. Both parties believe the terms of the settlement to be fair, and importantly, do not restrict Ms Abildgaard from discussing the case. All legal proceedings will now cease.”
Abildgaard said she hoped her case would encourage others to seek justice after similar experiences to hers.
“I am especially happy that I can share my experience with others taking resource-rich employers to court for workplace harassment and raise public awareness of the barriers for individuals to get access to justice,” she said. “I hope my story will encourage others who have experienced discrimination in the workplace to seek justice.”
The settlement does not include any sort of apology and Michel-Verdier is still employed by IFM.
Abildgaard’s charity, Legal Aid for Business Diversity (LABD), was set up to provide funding for harassment and discrimination claims against employers. Law firm Faegre Baker Daniels counsel Emma Vennesson gauged the likely impact of the charity and the case in an article for Personnel Today published in February. She wrote: “Although the abolition of employment tribunal fees in July 2017 has seen a steady increase in tribunal claims, many employees are still deterred from bringing claims due to a lack of funding. By narrowing the financial gap between employees and employers, LABD’s aim is to make it easier for claimants to bring claims.
“However, LABD’s impact will likely be limited, at least to an extent, by its own resources. Furthermore, the cost of litigation in terms of time investment and emotional distress is likely to continue to be a strong deterrent.”
Gwen Rhys, founder of Women in the City, which supports and promotes female talent said:
“When Women in the City was launched in 2003, women frequently reported workplace sexism and harassment and it is shocking that, nearly a generation later, they’re still saying the same thing.
“It’s no surprise that Abildgaard resigned while Michel-Verdier simply lost his bonus and received a 12-month ban from drinking at work events.
“I commend Nathalie Abildgaard’s courage in taking legal proceedings and for setting up a charity to support other women experiencing harassment, but if men cannot self-regulate their behaviour then it’s time for employers to review whether alcohol-fuelled events are an appropriate way to celebrate success.”
Last week, Lloyds of London announced that nobody under the influence of alcohol would be allowed on its premises and that an onsite bar would be converted to become a cafe. The move was in response to rising claims of sexual harassment and bad behaviour.