I only wanted a shoulder massage

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I only wanted a shoulder massage

Harassment case highlights importance of defining appropriate behaviour

The Cambridge Employment Tribunal has ruled in favour of a sales manager after she claimed sexual harassment against her Managing Director, who repeatedly asked her for a massage. Emma Woolf was employed by Milton Keynes-based Universal Science, a thermal cooling material provider. She commenced as Sales Manager in August 2016, and resigned 15 months later in November 2017.

In November 2016, three months after she started, she was due to attend a trade show in London and booked accommodation for the duration of the event. Some time later, James Stratford, MD, decided to attend the same event and advised her that he would share the two-bedroom flat with her whilst in attendance.

A corporate dinner was held on 23 November 2016 and Mr Stratford was witnessed as behaving inappropriately towards Ms Woolf. He was seen `leaning his body` into Ms Woolf, who was witnessed as looking uncomfortable.

The same evening, when the two individuals returned to their shared accommodation, Ms Woolf alleged that Mr Stratford asked her to give him a shoulder massage. He then asked her to sleep with him. She declined, telling him this was `totally inappropriate`. Mr Stratford then went to his bedroom asking her for a massage again; she refused and locked herself in her bedroom.

The following day, Mr Stratford walked around the flat in nothing but a small towel. Ms Woolf left the accommodation soon after and advised the Tribunal that she started looking for a new job from this point.

Whilst she was still employed, Mr Stratford repeatedly asked Ms Woolf for shoulder massages in the office, which she repeatedly declined. At another event in September 2017, Mr Stratford was asked if Ms Woolf and he were `a couple`, to which he responded he had tried several times but been refused by Ms Woolf.

On 12 November 2017, Ms Woolf resigned and following non-payment of her commission, raised a grievance letter, citing sexual harassment, victimisation and breach of contract for the non-payment of monies. The HR Manager arranged for the formal grievance meeting to take place on 24 November 2017, and this was attended by an external consultant on behalf of Universal Science.

The external consultant decided to dismiss the grievance due to lack of evidence; Ms Woolf decided to raise her claims at Tribunal. The Tribunal considered that Mr Stratford’s witnessed behaviours both at the trade event and the office would have been considered sexual harassment. The Tribunal also felt that neither the HR manager, nor the external consultant, had considered the allegations fairly or objectively, and that any `reasonable investigation` would have highlighted the available evidence. The Tribunal found in favour of the sexual harassment, but not in favour of victimisation or breach of contract. The remedy hearing has been scheduled for September 2019, and it is not clear whether Universal Science will appeal as no comments have been made by either party at this stage.

It is clear, as this recent case again highlights, that work events outside the workplace should be seen as an extension of the working environment. Employees and managers, including the most senior of management, need to conduct themselves appropriately throughout. Drinking alcohol at social events does not provide justification for harassment of any kind.

Given the Tribunal’s keen criticism of the way the employer handled the grievance investigation, this case reflects the importance of fully understanding the employee’s grievance concerns and undertaking a comprehensive and fair investigation, which would include speaking to relevant parties, considering relevant sources of information, and then arriving at an objective and reasonable outcome. Clearly, this was not the process followed in this case, and neither the internal HR Manager nor the external consultant delivered this.

We will update you once the remedy hearing details come through in September, but in the meantime, if you have any questions about this case, or if you feel your management could benefit from disciplinary and grievance, or discrimination and harassment training, please do get in touch with me at tar.tumber@internationalworkplace.com