In a recent case, the Employment Tribunal at Manchester found that a pregnant employee had been unfairly dismissed because of her pregnancy. On hearing some of the evidence, the ET agreed that “weird and inappropriate” comments had been made towards the employee regarding her pregnancy.
What Exactly Happened?
Mrs Caroline Law started her employment at Cumbria University in 2015 as a university outreach officer. She was under a fixed-term contract and after January 2017, moved on to the Data and Evaluation Manager role until 2019. Eventually, she became an Academic Lead for STEAM Outreach in March 2019.
Her role as an Academic Lead was funded and offered as a fixed term until July 2019. At the end of the role, there were talks of securing more funding and hence she was offered an extension until July 2020.
In January 2020, Mrs Law discovered that she was pregnant and was due sometime in September. She also found out that she was at risk of pre-eclampsia, which is caused due to stressful situations. Subsequently, with Covid-19 and the national lockdown in March 2020, the university was going through a stressful period. It was established that the chances of obtaining funding for her role have significantly diminished.
In addition to this, Mrs Law’s line manager, Mr Armstrong, moved to a different role. Mr Armstrong managed one other person apart from Mrs Law i.e., Mr Smith. Mr Smith had a change in line managers, but Mrs Law was told she will be managed by the Department of Science, Natural Resources and Outdoor Studies (SNROS).
In May 2020, she was told she will be managed by Mrs Lowthian. In their initial meeting dated 05 May, Mrs Lowthian was informed about Mrs Law’s pregnancy. The latter’s maternity leave was supposed to start on 31 August 2020.
In May 2020, HR informed Mrs Lowthian about Mrs Law’s contract ending and asked if there would be an extension. Mrs Lowthian responded quickly saying Mrs Law’s employment will be terminated. She also added later that she did not see herself playing any part in Mrs Law’s redeployment in any available role. She also told Mrs Law to take all her leave before her contract ended as the university did not have the budget to pay her later.
This was when Mrs Lowthian commented on Mrs Law’s pregnancy. Mrs Law was going through financial difficulties at the time since her husband was going through redundancy with an unrelated employer. To this, Mrs Lowthian said Mrs Law should look at second-hand baby clothes. Mrs Lowthian also said she would introduce Mrs Law to another staff member whose wife is pregnant. The introductory email between Mrs Law and the other co-worker had the subject line “babies” which embarrassed Mrs Law.
In another meeting with Mrs Lowthian, Mrs Law made it clear that comments on her pregnancy made her uncomfortable. To this, Mrs Lowthian said she would’ve said this to anyone. In addition, Mrs Lowthian made it clear she had no intention of helping Mrs Law continue her employment at the university. This was evident when Mrs Lowthian said that Mrs Law could do marking work from home while her baby slept and if she keeps working hard then she would get good “karma”.
On receiving her dismissal letter on 16 June 2020, Mrs Law appealed the decision and the meeting was conducted by David Chesser, COO of the University. Mrs Law felt Mr Chesser was dismissive of her and slightly condescending when he said she was “speaking up boldly” about her case. Mrs Law’s last working day was 09 July.
What The Employment Tribunal Said
In relation to the comments made by Mrs Lowthian about the pregnancy, the ET felt that while there were no ill intentions, Mrs Law was entitled to feel they were inappropriate. Additionally, the panel recognised that she was vulnerable considering her pregnancy. While comparing her situation to another male employee who was made redundant, the ET recognised that Mrs Law was in no position to find immediate work, unlike the other male employee.
The ET also found that Mr Chesser did not treat Mrs Law favourably by rejecting that her pregnancy made her vulnerable. The Tribunal awarded a sum of £129,133.39 to the claimant.
You can find the entire judgement by the ET here