A worker at a Vodafone franchise has won £30,000 in compensation after her manager asked her personal questions such as ‘how do lesbians have sex?’.
The employee, known as Ms C in tribunal documents, was employed by Thistle Communications in a Vodafone franchise store in Scotland. An employment tribunal in Glasgow upheld her claim of sex and sexual orientation discrimination.
She told the tribunal that her manager had asked her twice: “How do lesbians have sex then, I’m intrigued.”
“I told him I wasn’t going to answer that question, and he asked me again after a customer left,” she added, and her manager responded: “I mean I think it’s great you’re a lesbian but I can’t imagine having this conversation with a gay guy.”
In another incident, a different manager had told her she “looked like a normal lassie”, referring to her sexuality.
Ms C complained about this and a string of other incidents before taking sickness absence due to stress. She later resigned, having worked at the store for 15 weeks.
Sexual orientation discrimination
She said: “I don’t think they have taken seriously the damage this has caused to my mental health. I don’t feel safe to return to an environment which humiliated me, alienated me and has made me need to seek counselling.”
She added that the ordeal had cost her “months of my life”.
In November 2021, Ms C emailed her concerns to the managing director of Thistle Communications, which has since gone into liquidation, and also sent an email to an address supplied by Vodafone for LGBT+ staff.
The company brought in an external HR consultant to help investigate the claims against the two managers. In December, Ms C was emailed the outcome of the grievance procedure, which was that “inappropriate comments” had been made, with a recommendation of LGBT+ training for all staff and that Ms C no longer had to work alongside any of those involved.
Ms C appealed the findings of the grievance, informing the company that she felt the breakdown in relationship between her and the business meant she could not return to work. Her appeal was not upheld, and in January Thistle Communications was informed by Acas that she was looking to launch a tribunal claim.
An initial settlement offer of £2,500 via Acas was rejected and the claim proceeded to tribunal.
Thistle Communications was ordered to pay £30,000 in compensation, including £25,000 for injury to feelings, £1,100 for financial loss and £2,600 for the company’s failure to follow approved workplace procedures.
Employment judge Ian McPherson remarked that, while the respondent in the claim was a franchise business, the Vodafone parent brand would do well to look into how it supported employees of franchise operations.
“We note that the respondents are a franchise of Vodafone,” the judgment said. “It is not a matter for this Tribunal to look further into that matter, but arising from the circumstances of this particular case, we trust that the franchisor may well wish to look into how the Vodafone store is run, as it seems to us that there are many issues arising from this case, and what support, if any the franchisor makes available to employees of franchisees as regards LGBT+ support.”
Daniel Stander, an employment lawyer at Vedder Price, said “there is clearly much more to do” as workers continue to suffer from direct acts of discrimination and harassment.
“Research shows that more than a third of LGBT staff have hidden that they are LGBT at work for fear of discrimination. This case demonstrates the importance for employers to foster psychologically safe workplaces where staff feel that they can bring their whole selves to work without being made to feel fearful of being stigmatised and prejudiced.
“It is accepted that good workplace cultures have a positive impact on wellbeing and on productivity, but these things cannot be taken for granted.
“Employers can help raise awareness and should provide anti-harassment training for employees to ensure that staff (led by the board itself) are clear on what amounts to discrimination and the consequences of such conduct in the workplace.
“Further, compensation for injury to feelings is unlimited, which means employers risk potentially significant financial and reputational exposures when things go wrong.”