A recent employment tribunal case highlights the benefits of mediating disputes in the workplace rather than “going legal”!
A legal secretary who claimed she suffered age discrimination when her colleagues asked about her 50th birthday and sent her a card has had her case dismissed by the employment tribunal.
According to the judgment, the secretary, identified as Miss H Munro of Salisbury firm Sampson Coward LLP, claimed she was ‘utterly shocked’ when a fellow legal secretary, then 52, ‘jumped at her like a snake’ to ask about her birthday. Her colleague reportedly said: ‘It was your 50th wasn’t it, you can’t hide it you know’.
Munro left the office early, saying she was so upset by the incident that she ‘would not be able to concentrate further that afternoon’. In a letter to a partner at the firm, sent two days later, she said she had felt ‘ambushed, punched, slapped and humiliated’ by the ‘unsolicited’ comments. She added: ‘I come to work to earn money. Even so, I try to be friendly, polite and sociable. However, I’m a private person with a belief that personal matters can remain private and should do so if the individual wishes it.’
Staff at the firm had also sent Munro a card in the post, in line with the office’s practice to mark each other’s birthdays. The following month, the firm’s partners decided that disciplinary proceedings would have to be brought against Munro, or a mutually agreed departure would have to be agreed. According to the practice, the decision was based on long-running concerns about Munro’s poor performance.
Munro denied this, claiming she had suffered discrimination on the grounds of age. She also invoked whistleblowing legislation, saying her complaint pointed to a breach of data protection.
The tribunal found that Munro’s ‘sensitivity about her age appeared unusual and extreme’ and there was not sufficient evidence to show that other members of staff who were over 50 would have been treated differently. It added that the comment was ‘trivial and had not been delivered maliciously’ and ‘the birthday card was intended for the claimant as an act of kindness’.
It added: ‘We concluded that the claimant was wrong to have artificially attempted to cloak herself with the protection afforded by the whistleblowing legislation by making disclosures which had not been public interest.’
The claim was dismissed and the tribunal ordered that Munro pay £1,700 of the firm’s cost