A rail signaller whose colleagues watched pornography at work and had conversations about rape was a victim of sex discrimination, but did not bring her claim to an employment tribunal in time to receive compensation.
Ms Owens was a signaller based in Wimbledon, south London, and employed by Network Rail. Her role was considered to be highly safety-critical. Of around 40 staff at the signal centre, two or three were women.
She claimed that from the first day of her role, she was subject to sex discrimination. A colleague offered to make her a cup of tea and she claimed he said something along the lines of “How do you like your oral sex, giving or receiving?”.
Other allegations included colleagues regularly watching pornography while at work; making “deliberate and gratuitous” use of the word c*** while around the claimant; having conversations about rape; deliberately burping around the claimant for period of 15 minutes; displaying topless pictures of women; and bringing a sex toy into work and displaying it to colleagues while smiling at the claimant.
Sex discrimination cases
The tribunal also heard that colleagues made sexist remarks about female staff while around the claimant, including comments about whether women should be at home rather than in the workplace and male signallers speaking differently about female drivers who had made a mistake.
The allegations related to behaviours in 2015-2017.
Network Rail denied the allegations or suggested it did not have enough evidence of them taking place, but the Croydon employment tribunal found that her evidence had been credible and that all of the events she complained of were discriminatory on grounds of sex.
Owens submitted a grievance about the behaviour to Network Rail managers. The tribunal found that its investigation had been a “shambles” and the conclusions it had reached were “inadequate”.
Her grievance was “leaked” when it should have been kept confidential, which Network Rail admitted. This resulted in some of the staff implicated in her grievance to become aware of her complaints. Network Rail said it had shared the grievance in a “mistaken attempt to provide the claimant with support from her trade union representatives”.
The tribunal’s judgment said it was “striking” that many of the allegations were not investigated at all. Witness statements were lost and the person was overwhelmed by the grievance and had not received adequate training to deal with it.
However, the tribunal found that Owens’ complaints relating to how her grievance was handled had not been acts of discrimination. This meant that there had not been a continuing act of discrimination that would bring the lewd behaviours she had complained about “in time” for the tribunal’s jurisdiction.
Since the behaviours she complained about took place between 2015-2017, the tribunal considered that too much time had passed for her to successfully bring a sex discrimination claim, although the tribunal found colleagues’ behaviours had been discriminatory. Under the Equality Act there is a three-month limitation period from the date that the act complained of was done.
She did not provide any evidence around why she had delayed bringing her claim to the tribunal, which meant that it could not exercise its discretion to extend the time limit.
Network Rail southern region’s HR director Pete McCurry said: “There can be no excuses for this type of behaviour in a modern work environment. Over the last six years since the case came to light, we have done an enormous amount of work behind the scenes to improve the diversity of our workforce and to make our working environments more inclusive and welcoming. I am sorry for the distress this case caused to our colleague and I hope this example shows everyone who works with us on the railway the reasons why we can’t stop trying to improve our company.”