In a case bought to light recently, an IT worker sued her boss for sexual misconduct after misinterpreting certain words in a work email. The employment tribunal threw out all claims of sexual misconduct, sex discrimination and unfair dismissal.
What Exactly Happened?
Ms Karina Gasparova started working at essDOCS in November 2019 and was reporting to her line manager Mr Constantinou. Mr Goulandris, the accused in this case, was one of the co-founders of the company and was responsible for product, partnerships, sales and marketing.
Since Ms Gasparova started working before the pandemic, she was based in the London office at the time with other UK employees, including her line manager. The first of many allegations against Mr Goulandris was raised during this period (18 November 2019) where she claimed Mr Goulandris touched her leg with his leg under the table at a meeting.
The second incident she claimed occurred on 21st November when Mr Goulandris winked at her. Both these claims were not confirmed by anyone else in the office. Additionally, there were many other instances where Ms Gasparova claims Mr Goulandris touched her inappropriately or gave her “leering looks”, but these were all denied by him.
In early 2020, an email was sent to Mr Goulandris to review. After reviewing, he sent the file back and added “ajg” to the file name which then read “NGFA Steering Committee Presentation 05 May (ajg).pptx. “Ms Gasparova mistook “ajg” for “A Jumbo Genital” after looking it up on the internet. As it turns on, “ajg” were the Mr Goulandris’ initials – Alexander John Goulandris. Ms Gasparova did not believe it initially as she thought “someone as rich and powerful” would not put his initials in lowercase.
There were several other incidents in 2020 which led Ms Gasparova to believe that Mr Goulandris was making unwanted advances. This followed in 2021 when Ms Gasparova received an email from Mr Goulandris, which said – Can you please complete the following: The solution us currently used by xx Agris companies and yy Barge lines in corn cargoes in south-north flows in the ???? waterways.
This was the email that convinced Ms Gasparova of Mr Goulandris’ hidden intent as she believed the xx, yy and ?? in the email was a way of Mr Goulandris asking her when she would be ready to engage with him sexually.
Finally, in June 2021, Ms Gasparova asked Mr Constantinou if she could take a few days off, who then forwarded her request to her other line manager, Ms Marina Comninos. Having not heard back from Ms Comninos, Ms Gasparova reiterated to her that she needed time off since she was certain Mr Goulandris was trying to remove her from a project and she was having difficulty communicating with him.
Ms Gasparova asked for unpaid sick leave as well as time off to deal with the issues at work. However, Ms Comninos said she was not being removed from the project and hence her reason was time off was not legitimate. On 19th July 2021, Ms Gasparova resigned without notice stating that the company had not dealt with her grievance in a satisfactory manner.
What Did the Tribunal Say?
The hearing took place remotely before employment Judge E Burns. The panel found that there was no unwanted conduct of a sexual nature at any time. While Ms Gasparova had mentioned a few incidents, she had clearly mistaken innocent work-related conduct for something more.
The main reason for dismissing Ms Gasparova’s claims was that the tribunal felt she had a “skewed perception of reality”. They believed she made the allegations extraordinary and also contradicted herself. Moreover, a key part of her claim was that none of the incidents happened publicly; It was all done when no one was around or looking. Instead, she relied on the fact that because Mr Goulandris was a “rich and powerful” man, he was too clever to make advances openly.
In regard to some of the other claims, the tribunal dismissed those as well. The tribunal did not find any incident where Ms Gasparova faced direct sex discrimination. And while Mr Goulandris accepted his “abrupt” behaviour, he told the tribunal that it was his typical style with all colleagues. This was corroborated by all the witnesses from Mr Goulandris’ side.
As a result, Ms Gasparova was asked to pay £5000 to essDOCS.